When you first walk into the 190,000-square-foot Peckham facility near the Capital City Airport, you’d think you walked into a state-of-the-art liberal arts college. A giveaway to the fact that the building is a major producer of various military apparel is the 1,200 sewing machines on the production floor.
Since March there has been a small, but growing, indirect war of words over who has the best interest at heart of the people working around those machines.
The United Peckham Employees Association is a group of Peckham workers with help from labor activists — including the Lansing Workers’ Center and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — that are trying to gain support for an independent union for the close to 1,100 disabled manufacturing workers.
The group has been distributing union authorization cards, which nearly 200 have signed so far. When signed, the cards indicate support for United Peckham as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for the workers.
While there has been no dialog between Peckham administrators or the union, that has not stopped either one from making claims against the other.
Outlined in several fliers titled, “The TRUTH About the UNION,” which were distributed by the Peckham administration, the message is clear — “The Union makes promises they can’t keep.” The handouts downplay the power of a potential union, stating, “The union will enforce strict work rules and demand higher productivity standards,” and “the union may take away your flexibility.”
“I think there has been an effort on our part to make sure that we inform workers of what their rights are and ensure that they’re making informed decisions,” said Mitchell Tomlinson, president and CEO of Peckham.
Peckham United has also distributed literature — in English, Vietnamese and Spanish — to accommodate the diverse population of Peckham workers. Their documents state that the union will help gain better pay, better working conditions and more respect for employees.
Peckham United is working to highlight and combat the “consistent mistreatment” of workers and the “starvation wages” that they receive which are well below the “industry standard,” said Mike Kolhoff, an organizer with the Lansing Workers’ Center. Its website describes it as a membership-based, self-managed community organization “for working people.”
Kolhoff said that 75 to 100 Peckham workers are paid less than minimum wage.
In fact, he was low. Jo Sinha, corporate vice president at Peckham, said 200 workers make less than minimum wage and they are the most significantly disabled workers at Peckham. This is because these workers’ productivity rate ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent and pay is calculated based on piece-per-hour productivity. While learning the job, they are paid at least minimum wage and then the piece rate is applied after they’ve learned the job, Sinha said. The process follows rules set by the U.S. Department of Labor, and Sinha said the department has never had a problem with Peckham on this front. She added that these jobs are usually in the automotive area of production, like seat belts, and those working in them tend to receive Social Security benefits because of the severity of their disability.
As for paying industry standard wages, “We’re close to, if not above that wage,” Sinha said. Peckham has a “defined pay policy that more heavily values learning than productivity,” Sinha said. “A person moves up the pay scale by learning new job steps, and the top base pay is $9.”
There are bonuses for productivity and working well with a team, Sinha said. However, Peckham’s productivity level is under 80 percent, mainly because of who works at the facility.
Clients, not employees
Respecting workers is of the utmost importance at Peckham, Tomlinson said. He added that they consistently receive positive feedback from workers during annual surveys.
Workers at Peckham are not called employees. They are considered “clients” — a key distinction that would make unionization a problem, according to Peckham officials.
Peckham is a nonprofit, vocational rehabilitation and paid job-training program, Sinha explained. The goal of Peckham, she says, is to take people who have had difficulty finding work, like the mentally and physically disabled, and give them the training and support they need to find work out in the community.
Each of Peckham’s nearly 1,100 clients who work in the manufacturing sector has a Vocational Services Specialist who is trained to understand their barriers to employment and work out goals to work around or minimize those barriers.
Collective bargaining treats everybody the same, Sinha said, which may not be right for Peckham’s clientele base. That base is made up mostly of people with some sort of mental illness, she said.
“We think people have different needs, and you need some flexibility to be able to meet those needs,” she said. “If you have a union contract that spells out all the rules of employment, not everyone is going to fit that mold.”
Peckham has been involved in a “defensive” anti-union campaign, according to officials of the Lansing Workers’ Center and Peckham United. They claim that Peckham has forced workers to sit through anti-union presentations before giving them their paychecks, warned workers that they may be forced to sign a union authorization card by organizers and harassed clients who are union organizers with threats of termination.
“We’re not an anti-union company. As I’ve stood up and said to everyone, that’s not our position,” Tomlinson said. “But we do think it’s a complex work environment. We’re taking a group of workers that had a difficult time competing in industry and we’re giving them opportunities to learn and be competitive.”
As for the anti-union accusations, Tomlinson said: “All those things are kind of untrue as far as I’m concerned. We haven’t done those things.”
Claims of misdeeds are not only being shot at Peckham. Tomlinson and Sinha said they’ve had workers approach them saying the union told them if they didn’t sign the union authorization card that they would lose their Social Security benefits. They also said that the promises made by the union, like doubling a worker’s pay, are unsustainable for running a business, even a nonprofit.
“I think that promises that were being made to our workers, that if they unionize, that they would never get laid off and that our company would never close,” Tomlinson said. “In reality, places that have unionized have closed, and they haven’t always fared well on getting better wages for workers.”
There have been 76 recent layoffs at Peckham, an issue the union wants to remedy. Moreover, organizers allege several of those laid off were key parts to the unionization effort. But Tomlinson said the layoffs were expected due to a decrease in government contracts and denied it was for retribution against organizers. He and Sinha said they’ve been trying to get more commercial contracts but they can’t compete with overseas or even domestic textile production because of Peckham’s low productivity rate.
Kolhoff said constant layoffs, with little notice, are also a problem.
Sinha countered that most companies do not give notice for layoffs. She added that, most of the time, they give a two-week notice. Only recently did they have to inform clients just a week in advance.
It’s obvious that the union doesn’t plan on slowing its organizing efforts anytime soon, and Peckham administrators say the company will take it all in stride.
“We’re really busy trying to run our company everyday, trying to figure out how to create more jobs for people with disabilities,” Tomlinson said. “If our workers organize and unionize on us then we’ll deal with that as it comes. We don’t necessarily think that’s the best thing for Peckham to be successful but we’re not in full, 100 percent control of that.”