Union busting by proxy

DHL has Teamsters seeing red—and yellow

Rancho Cordova police protect DHL from a handful of union supporters.

Rancho Cordova police protect DHL from a handful of union supporters.

Photo By Larry Dalton

You’ve probably seen the commercials, the flying red-and-yellow vans, and the cheeky tag line “Competition: bad for them, good for you.”

The $100 million-plus ad campaign has helped the Germany-based courier corporation DHL make a run at its bigger competitors, FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS), and put the company on the map in the United States.

But yellow is not the new brown, at least when it comes to the way it treats its workers.

For example, the DHL driver who comes to your office every week probably doesn’t work directly for DHL at all, but instead works for a subcontractor whose own balance sheet depends on keeping wages down and turnover high.

“We do the exact same work as UPS or FedEx,” explained DHL driver Dave Mix, who makes $9.50 an hour after wearing the DHL uniform for more than a year. But drivers at UPS make upwards of $20 an hour.

That’s one reason Mix and many of his co-workers are trying to unionize with the help of Teamsters Local 150. That means going up against their employers—and also against a vast nationwide contracting system DHL uses to insulate itself from labor trouble.

“This is a multibillion-dollar company, but they are paying their workers a poverty wage,” said Pilar Barton, an organizer with the Teamsters Local 150.

Aside from the poor wages, starting at $8 or $9 an hour, workers for one of DHL’s contractors say they routinely are denied payment for overtime hours worked and are seeking thousands of dollars in back pay.

They also have complained of unfair labor practices stemming from the same contractor’s attempts to keep the union out. One former driver even claims he was fired for wearing a union pin.

DHL and its contractors deny all of these charges. Meanwhile, DHL has gone to court seeking to limit the union’s presence at the Mather Field facility, accusing the Teamsters of trying to intimidate its workers.

DHL Worldwide Express is the largest courier company on Earth, pulling in $50 billion in revenue worldwide. But the company has only begun to make gains on UPS and FedEx in the United States.

Unlike drivers at other major delivery companies, DHL’s employees in Sacramento actually work for labor contractors, not directly for DHL. In fact, nationwide about 60 percent of DHL drivers are employed through independent contractors, according to company officials.

At the Sacramento location, there are three such contractors: GF Trucking, Clark Inc. and Northern Valley Express (NVE).

All of the 50 or so workers at the Mather facility (which is leased to DHL by Sacramento County) wear the same DHL uniforms and drive the same yellow-and-red DHL vans. To the public, they are ambassadors for DHL Worldwide Express.

But DHL appears to take little responsibility for the wage and hour policies of its contractors. Employees at Clark already have won a union election and are getting ready to start negotiating a contract. And the Teamsters say GF Trucking drivers will hold an election this week, on March 18.

But NVE, which employs 26 drivers locally, has been much tougher for the union to crack. And the Teamsters have filed charges of unfair labor practices against NVE owner Jeff Spencer, claiming the use of illegal tactics to keep the union out.

Many of the workers there say that they have been made to attend regular meetings where they watch anti-union videos and that they regularly find leaflets on the bumpers of their vans that are critical of unionization.

But workers were more upset by DHL’s attempts to ban the wearing of union pins and by the firing of one worker who challenged the policy.

In a signed affidavit filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office in San Francisco, former driver Michael Law said that Spencer told several employees to remove their union pins (small pins with the word “union” next to a red check mark) because they violated the company’s dress code. Federal labor laws do protect certain kinds of union activities, such as wearing pins, in many cases. And asking employees to remove a pin can cause sanctions to be brought against a company.

Before removing his pin, Law first asked Spencer if he was being given a direct order.

“He was the only one who challenged me about the pin,” Spencer recalled, adding that he had been told directly by DHL officials in the Sacramento office to make the workers remove their pins.

Later that day, Spencer told Law that he had been seen on security cameras trying to steal a laptop computer, and Spencer fired him.

Law said that he remembered the laptop and that he had indeed failed to scan the laptop into his hand-held tracking device before putting it on his truck. But he said that the item in question had been delivered, near Christmastime, nearly one month before he was fired. He said the timing is no mystery. “There is no doubt in my mind that it was about the pin,” said Law.

Spencer replied that there was more than one incident that aroused the suspicions of DHL managers about Law and that it was “pure coincidence” that Law was fired on the same day that he challenged the no-pin policy.

DHL officials in Sacramento refused to answer questions about the incident, referring SN&R to the company’s U.S. headquarters in Plantation, Fla. There, DHL spokesman Jonathan Baker denied that his company had any policy against wearing union pins. The Teamsters have filed a complaint with the NLRB on Law’s behalf, and since then workers have begun to wear the pins again.

Aside from the unfair-labor-practice charges filed with the NLRB, union officials say they are preparing a lawsuit against Spencer to recoup unpaid overtime.

Several drivers told SN&R that they start as early as 6 a.m. and routinely work 10 or 11 hours in a day but that Spencer will only pay them for nine hours under any circumstance.

“We should all be getting at least two more hours of overtime pay every week,” said driver Laurie House. Union officials said the lawsuit would seek back pay for current and former workers. But, again, Spencer denied the charge. “I pay everybody for at least nine hours a day, whether they work it or not,” he explained.

DHL, for its part, is distancing itself from the actions of its contractors.

Teamster organizer Pilar Barton negotiates with police.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“They will need to address it, since those employees aren’t our employees,” said Baker.

While Baker characterized the dispute as being strictly between the contractors and their employees, the company got very involved in the union fight last week, when it took the Teamsters Local 150 to court for “illegal demonstrations” at the Mather Field facility.

On March 3, a delegation of union supporters, mostly from other labor organizations like the longshoremen and hotel workers, went to the DHL station to demand to speak with Spencer about the alleged labor violations.

The group also included representatives from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and activist Carl Pinkston, co-founder of the Freedom Bound Center. Also among the delegates was Alex Barrios, who attended on behalf of his boss, California Assemblyman Dave Jones.

Jones sent Barrios in support of Law, and the DHL workers generally, when he was told that Law was fired for wearing a union pin. “That’s clearly illegal,” Jones said.

“We are supporting the rights of these workers to organize. Unfortunately, it appears that DHL is not interested in negotiating with these workers and is using some pretty aggressive tactics,” Jones explained.

The NAACP representatives attended the event because of an apparent statement by one NVE supervisor that he didn’t want to hire any more African-Americans because, as Mix related the story, they were “too hard to control.”

The supervisor, who himself is black, refused to confirm or deny the comment. Spencer said that he had indeed heard that statement but that it was being taken out of context. “It was just a lighthearted thing,” Spencer said, insisting that there was no policy against hiring black workers. He said the union was blowing the comment out of proportion “because they are having a tough time [organizing NVE], so they’re just throwing stuff out there.”

“I think it’s racist any way you look at it,” said Mix, who is also black.

The community coordinator for the local chapter of the NAACP, the Rev. Ashiya Odeye, said he didn’t see the humor in the comment and added that he would ask the national organization of the NAACP to stop doing business with DHL.

On the morning of March 3, as the group approached the large roll-up door where the DHL vans enter and exit the facility, a handful of workers inside emerged from behind their trucks to show the thumbs-up sign and shout, “Go union!”

But the door quickly was closed, and within a few minutes, six patrol cars from the Rancho Cordova Police Department and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrived, filling the DHL parking lot and forcing the pro-union group to a sidewalk far away from the building’s entrances.

Then, on March 8, DHL Worldwide Express sued the Teamsters, asking a Sacramento Superior Court judge for a restraining order against the union.

The complaint accused the Teamsters and their supporters of using “mass picketing” to block trucks from entering and exiting the facility, and said the union’s “unlawful acts constitute a real and substantial danger to public peace and order, and to the physical safety of numerous persons.”

Union supporters said the claim was laughable. “They are just trying to intimidate the union and the community and squelch their First Amendment rights,” said Jason Rabinowitz, a Sacramento attorney representing the local Teamsters.

And the restraining order was denied on March 10, when Judge Thomas Cecil found “a complete absence of evidence” that a restraining order was needed.

But support for the union at NVE is hardly unanimous. Terry Ronzone was one of several NVE workers who contacted SN&R to complain about the union tactics. She called Spencer “the best boss I’ve ever had” and said that she believed the union was being too aggressive, showing up frequently at the DHL facility and approaching drivers at a nearby Shell gas station even when they weren’t welcome.

She also said that the union issue is extremely divisive and has chilled relations between co-workers.

“You can’t even get a ‘good morning’ anymore. If you say hi, they just look at you like you’re stoned,” Ronzone explained.

Spencer said he wished the union would direct its ire at DHL and not him. He said the company has a reputation as “the K-Mart of the delivery business.”

“They aren’t attacking DHL; they’re attacking a local guy trying to run a small business. Any problems we have are because DHL is starving the contractors,” Spencer said.

Contractor Ken Clark agreed. Clark’s employees voted to form a union in January. Leading up to the vote, he said that somebody slashed tires on his trucks and even urinated inside a van. “But do I have any proof that it has anything to do with the union? No,” Clark said.

He said that he has long pushed for higher wages for his employees but that he is at the mercy of DHL. “I personally think that a fair wage would be between $12 and $13 an hour, with decent health benefits,” Clark explained.

In fact, he said, when he first bid for his contract with Airborne Express (before the company was bought by DHL) two-and-a-half years ago, he was told his bid was far too high and that he could come up with something more reasonable if he slashed his labor budget.

“They said, ‘That’s our business model. It’s based on low wages and high turnover,’” Clark said, adding that the model has continued since DHL took over.

Now that his employees have voted for the union, he said, they are asking for $14 an hour—an impossible target unless DHL agrees to make up the difference in his contract.

He thinks DHL will simply look for another contractor, “and someone else will come in with a bid, based on $9 an hour. And I’ll be out of here.”

Indeed, Clark said he has already given DHL notice that he will walk away from the business unless he can negotiate a contract with the union—and get DHL to pony up more money—by the end of April.

If Clark does leave, which is what he predicts, it isn’t clear what will become of his newly unionized workers. A new contractor wouldn’t be obliged to negotiate with those workers or even keep them around, he said.

“And the strongest union supporters are pretty well-known,” Clark explained. “Don’t you think someone will be whispering in the new guy’s ear, saying, ‘Don’t hire Clark’s people. They all voted for the union’?”

All of which leaves DHL, and its drivers—who aren’t really its drivers after all—back at square one.

“Why do you think they use contractors in the first place?” Clark added. “It protects them from liability. And it protects them from efforts to unionize.”