Union says negotiations at Champion are slow go

By Carolyn Barbre

On Aug. 22, 2003, Judge Robert E. Coyle with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, found Champion Home Builders in Lindsay was engaged in unfair labor practices and ordered them to immediately commence negotiations with Carpenters Union Local No. 1109, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

The union had been certified on April 10, 2001 as the collective bargaining representative for Champion employees, but management had, according to the courts, unlawfully withdrawn recognition of the union and refused to negotiate.

Union representatives Jay Bradshaw and David Lupo say negotiations are rocky at best. "We had our first session Oct. 3 or 4. We showed up and they had their attorney present." Bradshaw said the union should have been notified so they could have had their own attorney present. The meeting was postponed until Oct. 10.

Bradshaw said Vice President of Human Resources for Champion, Hugh Beswick, who works out of corporate offices in Auburn Hills, Mich., said he would have economic proposals in writing. But Beswick brought no documents to the meeting. Yet another meeting was scheduled for Oct. 23. Bradshaw said on the 23rd he asked Beswick repeatedly if he had anything in writing. "He just wouldn't answer." He said the union attorney finally said, 'Do you have anything, or are you just wasting our time?' Bradshaw said Beswick finally responded that he would be back in a couple of hours with a written proposal.

"He came back with the same proposal from two years ago! The only change was they had marked through the $9.11 per hour proposal and increased it to $9.58, over two years! That's their proposal! Basically we had to sit around for five hours for them to give us nothing!" Bradshaw said.

Champion employee Paul Guerrero, who has been with the company five years, said, "Even the people who have been against the union from day-one thought it was a kick in the gut, a 45 cents increase." Both men said the company said that was only the hourly rate for production workers, but 90 percent of the more than 150 employees at the Champion facility in Lindsay are production workers.

Hugh Beswick said in a phone interview from Auburn Hills that the employees had voted to not be represented by the union. He said the negotiations stopped pending the National Labor Relations Board decision which went on for about a year and a half. "The final decision on the appeal has not come down, so there has been no final decision on the appeal," he said. In the meantime they were ordered to begin negotiating again, which Beswick says they have done.

"This was recently, like last month, and in that time we have made a written proposal on wages and health insurance, two significant big items which the union has. We also brought up for discussion how to handle events such as the Christmas shut down [when all employees take mandatory vacation time] and when how to handle when work runs out at the end of the day," Beswick said. He said this took place during two different meetings and management gave them its thoughts, "and agreed that we would have a written proposal for them by the next bargaining session next week on Nov. 12-13, giving the union time to consider its response. "So that we can make the best use of the time next week. I come out from East Coast time, so we have to plan it fairly carefully. I think things are probably reasonably in place to deal with each other and move forward," he said.

Bradshaw and Lupo said the company has continued to harass and threaten workers, telling them the plant is going to shut down. They said union notices are still being destroyed while the company tries to circulate anti-union materials and tries to get new employees to sign an anti-union petition.

"We feel those three issues are in contempt and have already filed another six unfair labor practices," Bradshaw said. "I've negotiated tons of contracts and would have to go back to the Frontier Hotel strike in Las Vegas to find an employer so heinous." He said the strike lasted five years and finally the hotel shut down and was sold.

Lupo said that it was unlikely that the company would close the Lindsay plant. He said the location of the plant, right in the middle of California, along with the available workforce, has made it the most productive of all Champion plants.

Information on Champion's Web site states, "The Champion family of homebuilders is the nation's largest housing manufacturer, with 34 homebuilding facilities located in 16 states and two Canadian provinces, and has produced more than 1.6 million homes since the company was founded, more than any company in the industry. Champion is one of the largest manufactured housing retailers in the U.S., with 115 Company-owned retail home centers in 24 states. Its homes are also sold by more than 650 retail locations that have joined the Champion Home Center retail distribution network and by 500 builders and developers."

Lupo and Bradshaw said Champion plants in Oregon and Texas were shut down because of predatory lending practices in violation of state laws.

Bradshaw said the company has an attitude of being above the law, particularly in regard to safety issues. Guerrero confirmed that there have been another 12-13 safety claims, bringing the total on disability to approximately 30 out of 150 employees. He said at least two more are going out for surgery. He said if employees get on the bad side of management they find their work load doubled. "Basically we have to stand up and fight," he said. And, he added, "At least a couple of days a week they say there is no work and send us home, when they just hired two new guys."

Bradshaw said they would be electing 15 shop stewards Friday, Oct. 31, or Monday, Nov. 3. "Whenever the company tries to lay off for a day or to discipline workers, they have a right to say 'talk to my shop steward.'" He said the shop steward would contact the union and a union field representative would go to Champion and make them negotiate over those issues. "Our main motivation is to try to bring some kind of direct protection," he said. They also plan to hold safety meetings, not on company time, to cut down on accidents, especially for the new hires who make up 25 percent of the workforce.

"You're OK until you get hurt, then you're pushed out," Guerrero said.

Bradshaw said, "We have two workers who were anti-union and now want to be on the negotiating committee." He said negotiations will make each side a little happy and a little sad. But they said the company's profits are huge and in the end they won't even feel it.

"Respect goes a long way," he said, regarding care and benefits for workers.

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