Long Haul

Dirty tricks or no, Teamsters say they won't stop their efforts to organize at Saia trucking

The Saia press release also referred to the company's long union-free history. "We trust that if another election is held, the majority of our employees will again recognize what's at stake and reject Teamster representation, just as they did in April of 2000," O'Dell says. "We have the utmost respect for our employees, and we appreciate their continued support by recognizing our efforts to maintain good working relationships."

Jim Hicks, a labor attorney representing Teamsters Local 745, has a different view of Saia. "They have brutally fired virtually all of the outspoken people in the company," he says. A judge will probably reinstate them, Hicks says, but "in the meantime, it has a devastating and chilling effect on support for the union."

Hicks adds that it's been a "long time since I've seen an employer so absolutely thumb its nose" at labor laws. He thinks the sheer number of violations may force authorities to act.

On a broader scale, union advocates say the Saia situation is the latest example of corporate roadblocks to a federally established right to organize. "It's cheaper to kill the organizing drive through these kinds of tactics than the cost of back pay and benefits" that result when federal regulators assess penalties, Hicks says.

Activists with the Dallas chapter of Jobs with Justice, a pro-union advocacy group, recently held a reception for Saia, Pat Salmon and Sons Inc. trucking, and local communications workers whose organizing efforts have been thwarted. In a case similar to the Saia struggle, Pat Salmon truckers seeking better wages and working conditions have sought to join the American Postal Workers Union (300 of them haul mail under contract with the postal service locally).

But votes cast in August aren't being counted while the company appeals to the NLRB the legality of their workers joining a public employee union. The appeal confounds APWU organizer Bobbie Patience, since APWU already represents private-sector workers. She deems it a stall tactic so union supporters can be fired or relocated in preparation for a vote to decertify the union. (Little Rock-based Pat Salmon didn't return calls for comment.) "We already know we won," says Patience, who claims about 30 workers have already been fired or moved elsewhere. "We did our own polling."

But organizers know wins can't be counted until the NLRB rules. Sitting at a bar drinking a beer, Pfisterer shows me a yellow company leaflet emblazoned with the words "Watch out! Warning!" It warns ominously that none of Saia's competitors in the short-haul market is unionized for one reason: "Why would our customers pay higher...rates if they can get it shipped for less? IT'S THAT SIMPLE." Standing nearby, Kline of the Teamsters says that argument is disingenuous, because Saia actually competes with unionized truck lines on some longer hauls.

Union supporters munching nachos and drinking punch in an East Dallas office building that evening hoped to create pressure for vigorous enforcement of labor laws. Despite the event's enthusiasm, participants admitted that the new Bush administration will probably make their life more difficult, not less. But they're not giving up. "We never lose," says Gene Freeland, head of the Dallas AFL-CIO. "If we don't organize this year, we'll be back next year. We keep fighting until we win."

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