Harassment: The Recession’s Hidden Byproduct

The recession numbers focus on the out of work, the nearly 10 percent of the workforce who are unemployed. Not counted in the stats of workplace misery are those still “lucky to have a job.”

A Labor Notes survey this month found harassment in the workplace at unprecedented levels, with a sharp uptick since the recession began. It may be that a measurable chunk of the unemployed have been harassed out of their jobs, fired rather than laid off.

Union members report increases in verbal abuse, discipline including discharge, crackdowns on attendance, surveillance, hassling to work faster, forced overtime, and a concerted effort to get rid of older workers. “It’s at a level that I have not seen equaled in my 20 years with the company,” said Seattle UPS driver Dan Scott.

As a rule recessions are a time for management to bear down in all sorts of ways, as the order to do more with less comes down the supervisory food chain.

Now, unions may be less prepared than ever to resist the harassment. In previous rounds of concessions, many surrendered work rules that had given workers flexibility or some say over their work day. Some took two-tier contracts that diluted solidarity on the job. And many older workers who knew—and defended—a less onerous workplace are gone.

Mark Bass, president of a Longshoremen’s local in Mobile, Alabama, said foremen are rushing dock workers and blackballing those who don’t speed up.

“It has not always been this way,” Bass added. “We had a large group of longshoremen retire who knew the longshoreman industry and had the union at heart. Now with the newcomers that don’t know the history and the story that goes from one to the other, we are faced with the challenge of educating our people.”

A recession is a hard time to do that. “At least I’ve got a job,” many say. And union leaders feel pressed to save jobs, not job standards. Still, some locals are hearing members’ desire for day-to-day respect.

BROWN DOG BITES

UPS made its plans for the recession clear with a video shown to workers late last year. CEO Scott Davis warned that companies come out of a recession three ways: weakened, not at all, or leaner and stronger. UPS bosses—long expert at micromanagement—intend to take the third path.

Scott, the Seattle driver, said managers are putting on the brown uniform and riding along with drivers in record numbers. From an average of three or four rides per month, he says, they’ve increased to that many per week. They choose perfectly sorted trucks, open doors for drivers, walk really fast—everything to speed up on measurement day.

“You have to fight the urge to walk as fast as they’re walking. If I had a nickel for every time he said, ‘let’s go, let’s move it,’” Scott said. “It’s perpetual chatter the whole day.”

If the numbers at the end of a ride day are higher than on a regular day, that’s proof the worker has been “stealing time.”

UPS made $400 million in the first quarter of this year, despite recession blues. Telecommunications giant AT&T is even better off, pulling down $12.9 billion in 2008. But once the AT&T contract expired April 4, says Dan Coffin, a business agent with Communications Workers Local 1298 in Connecticut, suspensions skyrocketed.

Because AT&T has a two-tier contract, management is intent on getting rid of first-tier workers. Walt Cole is a case in point. He and other Local 1298 installers were transferred temporarily to U-Verse, which installs TV and Internet lines. They brought their higher pay and contract rights with them.

“Management hated paying us $30 an hour,” said Cole. “We had things to say about work rules being violated, we filed grievances, we were a thorn in their side.”

When Cole exercised his contractual right not to work on his day off—a right not shared by the U-Verse second-tier workers—he was suspended. When he ducked into a restaurant for carry-out and forgot to lock his truck, he was put on final warning for a year—despite a 10-year record of no discipline. Now he’s fired.“When the contract expired,” Cole said, “you could almost see them rubbing their hands and saying, ‘This is the time to get rid of people.’”

SICK AND TIRED

Hospital workers, too, report that penalties are ratcheting up, with suspensions substituting for progressive discipline. A punitive approach to medication or practice errors has employees fearing for their jobs—and could pressure workers to cover up mistakes rather than report them.

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a nurse at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, says nurses are harassed to punch out and finish their paperwork off the clock or to work through their meal breaks to finish on time.

At the University of Chicago Medical Center, the endowment took a hit from the stock market crash, and the president decided on 9 percent cuts to come through the recession leaner. Layoffs mean blue-collar and clerical workers are working short-handed and lunches are denied, according to Teamsters Local 743 rep J Burger.

Workers are bumping into new jobs where they’re pressured to be up to speed within 30 days. Burger said many find the environment “so nasty and hostile they said they were leaving.” The local managed to negotiate severance pay.

At the same time management created a new non-union position, “advanced pharmacy tech,” that does bargaining unit work. “They’re using them to snitch on people,” said Burger. “We’ve gone from one or two grievances every two months to 15 outstanding.”

GET THE OLD GUY

At the L’Oreal hair dye factory in New Jersey, chemical compounder Tom Walsh says management is targeting older workers to discipline and then fire. As a part-time business agent for RWDSU-UFCW Local 262, Walsh sees a similar crackdown across the wide variety of workplaces he represents.

“They write them up for every little thing, it doesn’t matter how minor, and then it progresses to the next step till they’ve got their foot out the door,” Walsh said.

Scott, the UPS steward, said each of the four drivers he represented in management reviews in two months’ time has had more than 20 years.

At other UFCW-represented companies, workers on sick leave for more than 13 weeks are fired. Walsh notes that lower managers are not immune: “They got rid of pretty much anybody over the age of 40 and brought in a bunch of young kids right out of college.”

NO ROLLING OVER

Some CWA locals at AT&T are using the fact that their contract is expired to take action against harassment. In Northern California, when two members of Local 9404 were disciplined for refusing overtime, the local called a grievance strike.

Overtime work isn’t required, after a 2001 agreement stripped it from the contract. “We had to defend that,” said President Carol Whichard, who remembers hating year after year of forced overtime as a technician in the field.

Whichard called the strike at 8:30 a.m., and by 10 a.m., 600 workers had driven their vehicles back to the garages and were holding picket signs. By 5 p.m. the discipline was removed. Workers were paid a half day.

In Southern California AT&T is cracking down on bathroom breaks for inside workers. Managers say “lost time” should equal no more than two hours a month—about five minutes a day. Local 9503 steward Wynter Hawk says managers keep track, letting workers know how much they’ve used. They call it “a courtesy.”

“I say, ‘Your courtesy is kind of like harassment,’” she said. “Do they think when they get to the end of the month people will just hold it?”

Stewards are considering a mass pee-in, in which all workers would clock out at the same time.

At UPS, Dan Scott, a member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, counsels fellow drivers to fight speedup by following UPS’s thick rulebook to a tee. “They encourage us to hydrate throughout the day, stretch after each break and at the beginning of the day, take all breaks and lunches in full,” he said.

Scott believes the union’s untapped resource is the customers.

“People relate to their driver, how hard they work,” he said. "They are the face of the company. How much trouble would it be for a local or the international to run an ad saying, ‘UPS is harassing your driver. Ask your driver what it’s like.’ Start that chatter.”

Comments

Thank you for writing this important article. Bullying & harassment of workers spikes upwards during economic meltdowns, and it's vital to organize around it.

The following posts from my blog, Minding the Workplace, may be of interest to union folks who want to take action:

1. The story of how public employee unions in Massachusetts negotiated a workplace bullying provision into their new CBA, covering 21,000 state workers.

2. A short history of the workplace bullying movement in America.

3. Commentary on workplace bullying and the recession.

There's plenty more! I'm part of a growing international group of scholars, activists, lawyers, and others who want to stop this form of abuse at work.

David Yamada
Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute
Suffolk University Law School, Boston

Sharon M. Anderson (not verified) | 07/29/09

This went on at the Seattle Times for years. It included those with work-related disabilities. Many cases dragged on for years through multiple appeal and a whole team of company lawyers. A bunch of us retired as early as we could because the hours we were getting were actually pulling down our average earnings, affecting our social security outlook.