THE BLOG
06/07/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

Oklahoma Sweatshop Tells One Story of Labor's Challenge

Dan Lee was dripping with sweat and caked with dust and debris. He'd been at his job at an electronics recycling company for just a few weeks, sorting and testing cables and wiring from old computers and telephones. That bulky, cast-off home office Compaq computer that someone bought from Circuit City in the '90s? This is where it has come to die. And Lee's job was to see if any of its proverbial organs could be donated to modern tech equipment in need of a transplant.

"It was literally a sweatshop," Lee said. Temperatures would hit levels higher than 120 degrees. Because there was no air conditioning, bosses placed high-powered fans throughout the concrete facility.

Plumes of dust began churning and whirling in the warehouse, choking employees and stinging eyes. Supervisors passed out cheap, flimsy face masks.

Other problems surfaced. An owner walked through the office chain-smoking cigars, mockingly reminding Lee's co-workers to adhere to the company's non-smoking policy. Another sent a warehouse worker to clean out the owner's personal car on company time -- which got the worker in trouble with his lower-level supervisor.

"It was pretty obvious from the beginning that things were wrong," says Lee, adding, "I've always been a firm believer in unions. Everyone needs their rights respected. People deserve to have democracy in the workplace."

Promised pay increases never materialized, even with business on the upswing.

So for Lee and a few trusted co-workers, enough was enough -- especially when they were only earning $10 an hour and had to pay up to $200 per paycheck for family health insurance.

Reaching Out Brings Crackdown

Last December, Lee and a few co-workers "researched our options" and reached out to organizers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Soon, they were meeting with Oklahoma City Local 1141 organizer Trentice Hamm and his team.

The organizing campaign started slowly. Activist workers spoke to each other in hushed tones, refrained from passing out pro-union literature and kept the nature of the campaign tightly guarded.

In this right-to-work state with many anti-labor laws on the books and a widespread distrust of unions even among union-represented workers, IBEW organizers, Lee and a few of his co-workers boiled their pitch down to basic bread and butter issues.

The final meeting of the campaign on Jan. 18 hardly resembled anything approaching an organizing drive at all. The local union hosted a watch party for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team's much-anticipated game against the Dallas Mavericks, inviting more workers from the company.

It was a typical heartland feast. Hamm, whose family cooked barbeque for the party, said, "It's simple in our city -- family helping family."

But it was also the beginning of the end for the campaign. Word had gotten out to upper management that more and more employees were leaning union. Before the watch party, Lee was "let go," he said, "for what a manager said was 'no reason in particular -- just that it wasn't a good fit.'"

Another worker faced the same fate that week.

In the following days, the four key supporters -- Lee, Josue Ibarra, Emery Love and Gus Dillard Jr.-- were terminated for unknown reasons. The campaign was effectively squashed.

Organizers Step Up For Fired Workers

The fired workers asked IBEW organizers for advice on how they could obtain union jobs in the area. Fortunately, a large construction job to expand a major data center 100 miles northeast near Tulsa was staffing up rapidly.

While none of the fired workers had bona fide construction skills, their experiences testing equipment at the electronics company -- along with their proficient math abilities -- made them shoo-ins for new entry-level electrical classifications that could lead to apprenticeship openings and future journeymen electrician careers.

Just a few months after sucking down dust in one of the city's sweatshops, Lee, with the eager assistance of IBEW assistant apprenticeship instructor Rustin Walker, was putting on a hardhat and rugged boots enjoying the chance to learn vital career skills from veterans with decades in the trade. Lee and Ibarra are now making more money than they were at the electronics shop, pulling "tens" (10-hour days) most days of the week. The same goes for Love and Dillard, who now work teledata jobs for union contractors.

So there was a happy ending for the four ex-sweatshop workers. But they are the lucky ones.

National Labor Relations Board data reveals that workers were illegally terminated in 25 percent of representation election campaigns during the 2000s. And polls reveal that nonunion workers expect retaliation if they organize. In one survey, 79 percent of all workers polled said it is "very" or "somewhat" likely that nonunion workers will get fired if they try to organize a union.

The IBEW is pleased that we were able to find jobs for a few workers who had the mettle to stand up and organize for a voice and humane treatment on the job. But, time after time, equally courageous workers are fired and their efforts are abandoned because of employer intimidation.

All justice-loving citizens need to support regulatory and legislative efforts to more equally balance the playing field between employers and workers who -- like Dan Lee and his co-workers -- seek to turn today's sweatshops into decent, productive and family-sustaining places of work.

While he and his co-workers may not have won their campaign, Lee remains optimistic for others enduring rough treatment from management.

If any of his old co-workers come knocking? "I'll be there to help them," says Lee. "While an organizing campaign may not be initially successful, no effort of workers to stand up for themselves is ever wasted."