By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Michael Kline, organizing chief for Dallas-based Teamsters Local 745, says he's never had a supporter quite like Fred Pfisterer. The night shift freight loader and union backer was fired in September from Saia Motor Freight Line Inc. during an acrimonious labor dispute that's being closely followed throughout the trucking industry.
Over the last year, Kline's local has come within inches of winning bargaining rights for Pfisterer and other workers at Saia's busy Grand Prairie terminal amid an uptick in union activity locally, according to union officials. Despite a May election lost by an excruciating eight votes, Local 745 may yet pull off a revote or better in the face of fierce opposition from the Duluth, Georgia-based trucking company, which has kept its terminals union-free for 76 years.
If the Teamsters ultimately succeed, they can thank Pfisterer. Over the past year and a half he has waged a determined campaign for Teamsters representation, first as an employee and now as an outsider fighting to get his job back. But Kline says it's Pfisterer's letter-writing habit that sets him apart. The four-year Saia veteran has the temerity to send missives to the very top--to Richard O'Dell, Saia president and staunch opponent of the Teamster effort.
O'Dell has pleaded with employees to reject the union. He says it would hurt the company's competitiveness and perhaps even bankrupt the growing freight shipper, which counted $383 million in revenues this year, 4,500 employees, and 76 terminals from Virginia to Texas (Saia's Grand Prairie terminal counts about 400 workers). But Pfisterer disputes such gloomy predictions and asked O'Dell to document his claims by line item. "It has been one week now, and I am still anxiously awaiting to receive the entire breakdown of these figures," he wrote in a September letter.
In another tongue-in-cheek communiqué, Pfisterer accused his boss of hypocrisy. "I think it's ironic that truck lines have mandatory membership in the American Trucking Association to protect and make them stronger, yet you tell us that a union is bad for us!" By November, following the firings of Pfisterer and up to 20 union backers, the letters took a bitter tone. "This is far from over," vowed Pfisterer, who told O'Dell he had "personal contempt for you and Saia's underhanded tactics."
While other employees gripe about wages and benefits, Pfisterer says he joined the organizing drive after reporting safety and operational errors--such as forklifts falling off loading docks and new hires placing heavy freight on top of light freight--and getting no response from management. He recounts a sharp change in his managers' perception of him since his union support became known. "I went from Fred-you-can-do-no-wrong to Fred-you're-basically-a-dirtbag," he says.
Pfisterer says he was soon assigned more difficult duties in the freight dock; he says he was fired in September after an argument with a supervisor he saw illegally distributing anti-union literature in work areas. He told another superior "Fuck you" when he threatened to write him up for tardiness. Pfisterer says potty mouths aren't unusual in the hurly-burly of a freight dock, but it was enough to get him fired that day. "They made it out worse than what it was," he says.
These days, Pfisterer does intermittent work on Teamsters jobs, although the money is less than his Saia wages, and health benefits are nowhere to be found. Christmas for his family of five wasn't as grand as past years, and Pfisterer admits the union has helped out by providing him canned goods and ready-made meals, hand-outs that underscore the Pfisterer family's self-professed subsistence "on the ragged edge."
Still, Pfisterer is deadly sure of one thing. "Had I been a union worker at Saia," says the 41-year-old native of Germany and U.S. Air Force vet, "I'd be back at work already."
And Pfisterer believes vindication will arrive soon. He's counting the days until a January 29 hearing before a federal administrative judge in Fort Worth. There, NLRB investigators renowned for caution will charge that Saia has committed 17 violations of labor law mostly since the election on May 12 and 13, including firings of at least seven pro-union employees, intimidation, and attempts to squelch union campaigning.
The judge will have latitude to reinstate fired employees. Left for another hearing is a date for a possible revote or even summary certification of the Teamsters at Saia through a "10(j) injunction" if the judge finds coercive tactics have sabotaged the union's chances of success in a revote. Such intervention is rare, but the Teamsters' Kline thinks the close vote and severity of legal violations makes such a ruling possible.
Whatever the judge decides will likely be appealed to the main NLRB panel in Washington (soon under the new management of Bush and Co., seen as less friendly to unions) and to federal courts. Meanwhile, Saia denies the gamut of charges ranging from illegal firings to threats of shutting down the Grand Prairie terminal. "We believe the election was very fair," Saia President O'Dell said in a press release. "The election was monitored by members of the National Labor Relations Board."
When an NLRB hearing officer in Fort Worth recommended a revote, Saia sent its protest to Washington. "A union objecting to a company's conduct before an election is not unusual when they lose," O'Dell says. He also points out that 19 of the Teamsters' original 22 election challenges were tossed out. (That's a different batch from the 17 NLRB-documented complaints.) But those three remaining challenges included alleged camera surveillance of union pamphleteers and efforts to squelch campaigning on company property during non-work time.
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."