Taking on a Champion

Sharonville factory workers prepare for union vote

Jul 14, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The local manufacturing plant of a national window company might soon become a unionized shop. Employees at Champion Windows’ Sharonville manufacturing facility are scheduled to vote July 21 on a move to join the Iron Workers Shopmen’s Union.

If approved, the move would lead to contract negotiations between the company and the labor union over working conditions and wages.

Proponents of workers’ rights say it’s a much-needed change at the facility.

“Basically, they’re just treated like dogs,” says John Bielak, the union’s president and regional organizer. Champion employees contacted him in March to help them organize a unionization drive, he adds.

Among their complaints, Bielak says, were accusations of segregation, harassment by management and a culture of favoritism. Experienced workers would be asked to train their new bosses, who often were people with less experience but chosen for their jobs through personal connections with hiring staff.

“I reviewed this before I got involved, to make sure it was not just a couple of people bitching and moaning,” Bielak says. “It’s just a ruthless place for people to work in this day and age.”

According to Bielak and information released by Cincinnati-based Interfaith Workers Center (IWC), although some line workers’ salaries are as low as $10 an hour, the unionization move is as much about respect as it is an increase in income.

“I’m told a wage increase is less important than an end to the abuse,” IWC volunteer Thurman Wenzel wrote in an e-mail to CityBeat.

Wenzel, who has attended two of the workers’ informational pickets, reports hearing stories of verbal abuse and intimidation used as tools to keep productivity high, and both he and Bielak allege incidents of employees being fired for attempting to unionize.

Champion’s management representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.

Wenzel and IWC organizer Dan Moore say the union is throwing its support behind the effort not in response to a particular complaint, but more out of its general mission to support workers who choose to organize, regardless of their trades. This has involved recruiting community members, like Wenzel, to stand on the picket line in solidarity with unionizing workers.

“The workers have taken the first and most difficult steps,” says Moore, referring to the initial contact workers made with union organizers. “Once it’s at this point, there’s a lot of support from the community.”

Wenzel says the pickets he’s attended, scheduled for shift changes to be most visible to employees, were small and relatively peaceful.

“The first had about six workers and three supporters, the second about eight workers and eight supporters, plus lots of supportive honks from passersby on Crescentville (Road),” he says.

But Bielak relates a much darker picture from his experience on the picket line.

“The support with workers is good,” Bielak says, “but it’s tough because the company is hitting them with so much anti-union propaganda.”

The union approached the company directly, he adds, but that path didn’t open a line of communication.

“Everything is ‘no,’ ” he says about Champion’s response.

During some of the pickets, Bielak spotted a group of people holding anti-union signs. He says the individuals weren’t factory workers and that he suspects they were company plants sent to undermine the picket.

“I can’t prove it,” he says, “but they have no say, no vote, so why would they be out there?”

And Bielak’s allegations grow darker, still. He reports that, at one picket, a Champion management employee attempted to hit him and a local reporter with his car. No one was hurt, Bielak says, adding that the union has filed several complaints against Champion with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“We’ve got many NLRB charges against the company,” he says.

Bielak’s and Champion employees’ charges couldn’t be immediately verified; a search of Hamilton County court reports did not find any reports of the alleged car assault, and Champion Windows CEO Dennis Manes didn’t return calls for comment.

But there are facts that are clear in this case: Employees of Champion’s window manufacturing facility in Sharonville will decide next week to unionize or continue the status quo. If the union initiative passes, the Iron Workers Shopmen’s Union Local 468 will represent the workers in contract negotiations.

The company also has a factory in Denver, Colo., and some local workers hope the action will prompt that facility to follow Sharonville’s lead.

It remains uncertain if union negotiations will resolve the workplace complaints. For now, the parties involved are playing a waiting game to see what the future holds.