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Labor

Frank Johnson's union dues

An organizing drive in southwest Detroit become a five-month roller coaster.

Steelworkers union organizer Todd Mireles.
Jaime Salinas helped lead the union fight.
Pro-union pickets staged rallies in support of Peerless workers.
Empty 55-gallon drums from the factory are piled next to an adjacent home.
"Without the union we have nothing," Frank Johnson told fellow workers as the fight wore on.
Workers say dust and smoke are a way of life inside Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives.
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Published 10/13/1999

The morning began like most other workdays for Frank Johnson. Up before 4 to see his wife off to her job at an auto plant, he downs a couple cups of coffee and does chores around the house for an hour or so before climbing into his 11-year-old Dodge pickup for a 15-minute drive to southwest Detroit.

As he pulls into a lot across from Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives dawn is just beginning to break, the morning sky the color of dull pewter. It is at this moment the routine becomes something quite different.

Waiting outside the plant are four organizers for the United Steelworkers of America. As employees shuffle in, the union folk approach, yellow fliers in hand. Printed in bold letters across the top of the leaflets are the words "Organize and be Surprised."

Johnson studies the paper for a moment in the dim morning light before tucking it into a pocket and heading inside to start the hard, dirty work of crushing scrap iron into metal

powder. He has no idea how prophetic the words on that flier will prove to be.

Over the next five months, Johnson and his fellow workers would take an emotional roller-coaster ride in the fight over unionizing. Their experience serves as a case study of the obstacles faced when employees seeking better wages and working conditions run headfirst into management determined to stop them.

Battle zone

Late last year, the United Steelworkers of America set its sights on organizing companies operating in Detroit, especially those inside the city’s Empowerment Zone. Established in 1996, the federal program is designed to promote economic growth in impoverished areas. For companies such as Peerless, which operates two factories in the zone and does between $5 million and $10 million a year in business making iron and steel powders for automotive parts and steel grit for abrasive blasting, the program offers a package of substantial incentives. Those include tax credits of up to $3,000 per year for each employee who lives in the zone; another credit of up to $2,400 is provided if the company hires members of high unemployment groups such as veterans, ex-felons or welfare recipients. Because tax records are confidential, the extent of the tax breaks being enjoyed by Peerless and other companies throughout the zone isn’t known.

"We really wanted to hit the inner cities," explains union organizer Rick Torres. "Companies are getting all these tax breaks, but when you talk to the workers, and to the people in the neighborhoods, you see conditions aren’t getting any better. The concentration of low-paying jobs is increasing at an astounding rate."

Detroit’s Empowerment Zone covers slightly more than 18 square miles. In that area, poverty and all the societal ills that accompany it are endemic: the median annual family income is $9,870. More than half the adults have no high school diploma; teenage girls become mothers at nearly 2.5 times the national rate; the infant mortality rate is double the national rate; deaths from alcohol occur at about three times the national rate, and deaths from drug abuse are more than seven times the national rate.

The neighborhood around Peerless – homes are located across the residential street and alongside the plant – reflects these grim statistics.

It’s the kind of neighborhood where chickens roam some yards and crack-addicted prostitutes offer strangers $10 blowjobs.

Blight is everywhere. Broken-down cars are jacked up on tires, empty lots are strewn with trash; burned-out buildings remain standing for years.

The Peerless plant is very much part of this scene. Once-white houses nearby have a rust-colored patina, the result, say area residents, of plant dust that has oxidized over the years. The street in front is often flooded with water the same reddish color.

When asked how he can be sure it’s iron dust that’s given the streets and homes and abandoned cars their distinctive hue, one neighbor takes a smooth, black magnet and runs it over the dirt in his front yard, then holds it up to show its covering of grayish powder.

"Sometimes," says plant neighbor Bernard Pate, "it’s so bad, it’s like a low-lying black cloud coming down the street."

As bad as the plant seems from the outside, it’s even worse on the inside, say workers.

Union organizer Todd Mireles found that out the first morning he visited. His field notes record the observations of one employee who said being employed at Peerless "is like working inside a coal mine."

It’s an apt description. Much of the plant is illuminated by bare bulbs that hang from the ceiling, glowing dim in a perpetual corona of dust. This summer, when ventilation fans attached to the ceiling broke down, workers heaved rocks through a row of glass windows running along the top of one wall to help get more fresh air circulating.

Add to that the fact that most workers are getting paid between $7 and $10 an hour and it is easy to understand how ripe a target they would seem for organizers.

Plant owner Paul Tousley declined repeated calls from the Metro Times seeking his side of the story and his responses to a variety of allegations. "I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to talk to you," Tousley said.

Ripe and ready

On May 19, two days after organizers first passed out fliers, eight of the plant’s approximately 25 non-management employees showed up for a union meeting at the Xicano Development Center, where the Steelworkers have set up shop. Within a few days, 19 of 25 eligible workers have signed cards declaring their interest in joining the union. All the cards are signed by employees at the plant located across the street from the company’s offices on Military Street. In the weeks to come, organizers will also target Peerless’ other factory, located on Livernois several blocks away. The fact that there are two factories will eventually become a crucial element, but, for the time being, attention is being focused on Military.

An organizing committee is established, and officers are selected. As their secretary, the workers choose Marlo Brown, a soft-spoken 25-year-old with keen eyes and a quick mind. The co-chairman is Jaime Salinas, a beer-drinking 43-year-old with the flattened nose of a boxer.

As their leader they select Frank Johnson. At 45, he’s older than most of his fellow workers, but it’s more than just his seniority that inspires confidence. For years now, he’s been urging the guys to consider signing on with a union as a way to improve wages and working conditions at the plant. Now that the Steelworkers have started organizing, the guys are ready to follow his lead.

There’s something else, too. Johnson is an ordained minister, the pastor of a small Baptist congregation located in a storefront on Detroit’s west side. He conveys the quiet assuredness of someone accustomed to taking on the role of a leader.

The high amount of worker interest has union organizers sensing a potential victory. On June 8, the union files with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking a certification election. By law, the vote is to be held in 42 working days.

Plant owner Tousley, who’s apparently been unaware of the organizing activity going on to this point, is given formal notice by the union.

He responds immediately.

Sticks and carrots

On June 9 Tousley walks through the plant handing employees a letter that makes clear his view of unions.

The memo directs attention to the company’s employee handbook, which states that Peerless Metal Powders is an "at will employer and PMP may terminate your employment at any time for any reason or for no reason."

"It should be obvious to you," continues the notice, "that this letter is being written because I am well aware of certain employee organization attempts that are ongoing. It is my firm position that this will never happen. I will not lose control of my plant, that is the main reason why I have the employee handbook that gives me the right to terminate your employment at any time without cause."

He issues another notice as well. This one states that, effective June 10, any employee scheduled to work overtime on a Saturday or Sunday who does not show will have his wages reduced by 25 cents an hour for the entire pay period. Anyone who misses two consecutive weekend shifts will have wages slashed 50 cents an hour.

At the same time he begins meeting with employees privately and starts handing out raises. In some cases these are the first pay increases in five years or more.

In a sworn affidavit filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Salinas recounts his meeting:

"He said, ‘Fuck the union, you can kick them in the ass and you and I can go in the office and negotiate right now.’ He was trying to get me to go into his office and I said no, I didn’t want to. I said, Paul, I have to think about this. He said what do you need a union to negotiate for you when you and I can negotiate. ... He said the union promised you a yacht and you are gong to end up with a canoe. I said at least I would be floating because I am drowning now."

In a separate affidavit, Marlo Brown described being offered a $1 an hour raise. Tousley asked Brown how he felt about that.

"I said it wouldn’t make me feel anything because I never received the initial raises I was supposed to get and how I didn’t appreciate how his supervisors laughed at me when I inquired about receiving raises. He was hesitating and then he went on to state that the best he could offer me at that moment was $1.25."

"He explained how he was a good Christian man and had a good rapport with black people, that his foremen were black. I asked him what would guarantee that he would give me the raise, if I was to vote in his favor that he wouldn’t take it back. He said he was a man of his word and anybody who knew him knew he wouldn’t tell a lie. This is when he talked about being a good Christian."

When asked what issues were on his mind, Brown, according to his affidavit replied, "... my wages and the dust I was breathing in. I said he didn’t have to go home each night and blow his nose and black stuff comes out or when he spits black stuff comes out. He didn’t say much about this, he didn’t say what he would do to clean it up. He then started asking me who I thought were the weak links in the union. I didn’t tell him any names."

According to the Salinas affidavit, Tousley was also interested in determining the strongest links.

"Tousley said, ‘Don’t I take care of you, don’t I give you advances when you need them?’ I said if you paid us enough money, we wouldn’t have to ask you for advances. He just smiled. Then he said Frank Johnson, is he like a leader of the union? He said I can’t believe Frank is trying to start a union. I didn’t respond to this. Tousley then walked away."

In his affidavit filed with the NLRB, Johnson described a closed door meeting he and Keith Ridgell, another leader of the organizing effort, had with Tousley, who allegedly made no secret of his desire to derail the union drive: "He asked us what if he made a contract without the union, directly with us. He said we can talk, our lawyers don’t have to know it and neither does his and he could make a contract directly with us. Keith then said it was not all about the money, that we are dealing with hazardous waste and it was killing all of us. He told us ... I can clean the place up for under $5,000, give everybody over there $10 an hour, would we make a contract with him and forget about the union because he knows us and if ... he has to deal with a third party, he will be mad as hell."

The drive is on

The guys begin meeting every Wednesday after work. About 10 of them, nearly all African-American, form the core of the organizing committee. In an apparent attempt to keep them from discussing the union at the job site, Tousley issues an order saying no one can stay on the premises for more than five minutes after their shift. Unable to shower and clean up for the meetings, they faithfully troop to the Xicano Development Center each week, wearing their blue Peerless uniforms, covered with so much grit they sometimes look as if they could be chimney sweeps. Sitting around a pair of long, rectangular folding tables, they make progress reports and discuss tactics. Most lay packs of cigarettes and lighters on the table. A few usually pass a bag-wrapped quart of beer back and forth.

The lead organizer is Mireles. A 33-year-old former journalism student at Michigan State University, he worked for the United Farm Workers in Detroit for two years before signing on with the Steelworkers last January. With shiny black hair in a long ponytail, Mireles has the bulky build of a sumo wrestler. A self-confessed radical, he seems at home at the Xicano Development Center, where the wall posters depict Caesar Chavez, Che Guevara and Pancho Villa.

This is Mireles’ first union drive, and he is fired up by how well things are going. He’s also impressed by the attitude of the workers. "They see this isn’t just about the money," he says. "They see this is about taking control of their workplace, and cleaning it up, not just for themselves, but that entire community."

Some initial supporters are lost to the lure of higher wages – "He sold his soul for a dollar an hour," they say about one employee who took a pay hike and threw away his union pins. Others cave to the pressure being applied by management, but the guys remain convinced a majority of the employees will cast ballots in their favor.

The situation is different at the Livernois plant. Although a few employees have expressed support, most continue to rebuff efforts by Mireles and other organizers to discuss the union.

"Those guys at Livernois need your support," says Steelworkers organizer Sonya Watkins during one meeting. "They’re in the same boat you are. Five guys over there have signed union cards. They’re putting themselves on the line just like you guys, and you owe it to them to help them."

But the Livernois plant proves to be a tough sell. Several workers there have a much higher wage than at the Military site. According to one employee, they also have a much easier time of it on the job.

"Over at the Military plant, those guys really have to work hard. It’s not the same for us. We have it a lot easier," he says, asking that his name not be used when interviewed on the front porch of his home one evening in late September.

Although urged to help spread the union message to the Livernois plant, the Military faction, having put themselves on the line, have little sympathy for those they consider too afraid to do the same.

"They’re watching us to see what happens," says Marlo Brown. "They want to wait and see if we’re still standing when this war is over. I’ve spent enough time trying to get those guys motivated. I can’t carry them on my back."

Nonetheless, a few minutes later, his eyes are bright with enthusiasm as he says, "There is one guy who lives down the street from me. I can go talk to him."

"If they want our help," he decides, "I’ll help them."

Fired, still fighting

Frank Johnson is suspended July 9 and permanently fired a few days later. In an affidavit filed with the NLRB, he describes a confrontation with foreman Ronnie Jones, who originally supported the union drive – there is a photo of him at an early rally standing outside the plant shouting into a bullhorn – but then threw his lot in with management when offered a promotion to night shift supervisor and a $1.50-an-hour raise.

Johnson claims Jones accused him of stealing his lunch, calling him a motherfucker and a whore and saying he was going to kick someone’s ass. When Johnson walks away to avoid a confrontation, Jones follows, continuing to hurl curses at him, according to Johnson’s sworn affidavit. At least five other people witnessed the confrontation.

Later that day Johnson is called to the office and told he is being suspended while an investigation is conducted. "I said why don’t you get those guys over here now in front of me," writes Johnson in the affidavit. When told that wouldn’t happen, Johnson says, "Let me ask you one more question, is Ronnie Jones suspended?"

The answer was no.

A few days later, in a show of defiance, Johnson loads his charcoal grill into the back of his truck and drives to the plant.

Johnson describes the event in his affidavit:

"I had it (the barbecue) on city property and sat outside and cooked hot dogs and I had pop and ice for the guys … (supervisors) told them at break time the employees could not leave the plant, they could not walk outside or talk to me. ... All the big doors were pulled down, which was not done before. At this point, no one could come out and talk to me. ... I took the grill with my hot dogs and ice and cooler and took it over to the other side of the street where the plant was. All the big doors were down. Jaime Salinas came out anyway, Marlo Brown came out anyway."

A few more followed.

"Then Paul Tousley himself came out with a camera and started taking our pictures. At this point he stood there taking pictures of everyone. I asked Paul Tousley if he wanted a hot dog. He said ‘No thank you.’ I said you are welcome to it. After Tousley went back to the office more employees came out and got hot dogs. ...."

Because surveillance of organizing employees is an NLRB violation, Marlo Brown also described the event in his affidavit.

"Paul Tousley took two pictures of me," Brown told the NLRB board agent. "He took one and then I told him to get my good side and I turned sideways and he took a picture."

Despite his open defiance, Johnson urges the guys to stay the course. The election is a few weeks off, and he doesn’t want them to do anything foolhardy.

"I’m not going to be there at work with you, so you guys are going to have to look out for yourselves," he counsels. "Be on your best behavior."

Salinas, taking his role as co-chairman seriously, says it continues to look like the guys have the votes needed to win.

"All we have to do," he tells them, "is stick together."

Allegations, violations

Following Johnson’s firing, organizer Mireles gets orders from higher-ups in the union to have Peerless employees step up reporting of alleged labor law violations.

"It’s crucial," he tells them. "The pivotal thing now is that we have to report everything done that is a violation."

He explains that it is possible for the NLRB to decide that the alleged harassment has been so severe as to make a fair election impossible and order that Tousley recognize the union.

Mireles also stresses the continued importance of trying to pull in workers at the Livernois plant.

"We have to focus on that," he says.

But at the July 21 meeting, the guys are focused on working conditions. A fire at the plant that day has them all fed up.

They explain that during the manufacturing process, metal is run through a furnace to burn off oil and other impurities. That day, hot drums were placed on wooden pallets; the pallets began to burn.

"I almost walked out," says Marlo Brown. "Two different machines running material, kicking up dust, and a fire on top of that. I couldn’t even think, it was so dusty. Popped me aspirin, my head hurt so bad."

It’s a day for ailments. Jaime Salinas shows up at the meeting with a gauze patch over his left eye. A piece of metal lodged in it, and he had to be taken to a clinic.

Among the documents obtained from the state is a safety inspector’s note from last year observing that there have been several eye injuries, and that the plant lacks specially tailored eyewash equipment. Instead, workers must use the spray attachment on the lunchroom sink.

Then there’s Frank Johnson.

"I’ve been at the hospital all day, where they were taking blood and doing other tests trying to find out what’s wrong with me," he says. "My doctor told me if I want to keep livin’, I need to find me another job."

As he describes nights of chest pains and hacking coughs that cause him to spit up black gobs of phlegm, his co-workers sit and nod their heads, as if to say, "We know. We’ve been there."

Where’s the election?

July comes and goes and the guys are all asking, Why hasn’t there been an election. What’s going on?

At first they’re told it was postponed because the NLRB board agent handling their case has been on vacation. Then they are led to believe that their charges of labor law violations have caused the delay.

"As far as I can see, right now it’s like a big ol’ stick has been jammed in the gears and they’re not going to move," says Mireles.

"I’m already about at the end of my rope," pleads one guy.

When told that it could take a year for the government to order recognition of the union as their bargaining unit, they are both united and adamant in their reaction.

"We can’t wait that long," says Salinas, the rest nodding their heads in agreement. "They’re going to pick us off, one by one, just like they did with Frank. Before long, we’re all going to be out of there."

It isn’t until later that they come to understand that Steelworkers official Rick Torres made the decision to file for what’s known as a 10-J injunction, which blocked the election.

Torres recently defended the decision, telling the Metro Times that as the election approached, he was much less certain that the guys had the votes. Banking on what he called "some of the most blatant violations I’ve ever seen," he decided to put his trust in the NLRB.

The guys claim they were never consulted on this, and are irate when they realize its full impact.

Torres and other union officials insist that the workers were fully informed.

"We explained everything," says organizer Luisa Perez when the question comes up at a meeting in mid-September.

"We weren’t told everything," says a visibly angry Salinas.

"You were told," insists Perez. "Maybe you just didn’t understand."

The meeting is tense and hostile. Tempers boil in frustration.

At one point Perez tells the guys, "Are you still with it or aren’t you? Because if I have to fight you guys, I might as well pull out."

"We should have had that vote in 42 days," persists Salinas. "We were not given all the information."

Johnson, who has been sitting stunned and silent for most of the meeting, finally speaks up. He has been out of work for two months. He is increasingly bitter that the union hasn’t done more to help. Even so, he counsels the guys to stay the course.

"Without the union, we have nothing," he says. "Besides, at this point we have nothing to lose. We have to hang in there."

"I ain’t happy about it at all," says Marlo Brown. "But I got to go with the flow."

After the meeting, standing outside, Salinas says to Mireles, "Why didn’t they tell us what was happening?"

"Dude," replies Mireles, "they didn’t even tell me."

Crosses to bear

As October approaches, the wear and tear and uncertainty on Frank Johnson are showing. The situation, increasingly bizarre, changes almost weekly. First the election is postponed indefinitely, then it is on, but, because the block opened the door for Tousley to negotiate, he insists that the Livernois plant be included if the election is going to be held anytime soon.

Johnson takes that news as if, in his words, he’s been "hit by a ton of bricks."

A week later, the story changes. A date for the election has been set –Sept. 24 – and Tousley has agreed to proceed without the Livernois plant.

"I got the news yesterday," says Johnson. "Last night was the first time I’ve had a good night’s sleep in months."

"All this has really taken its toll," he confesses at one point. "It’s taken its toll on my marriage. It’s taken its toll on me. This is the worst thing I’ve ever been though. I’ve never had to draw unemployment once in my whole life."

Eventually he’s the only one showing up at meetings, so he and Mireles go to a bar across the street to share a few Cokes and talk.

Mireles says that his boss is no longer talking to him, not returning calls. He sees the writing on the wall, and tells Johnson he’s soon going to be out of a job.

For Johnson, the strain of being out of work is beginning to show. His wife, a member of the UAW, has been supportive of his efforts from the beginning, but she is angry that the Steelworkers aren’t doing more to help her husband.

They have two children, one a high school senior who’s planning on college next year. The loss of income grows more worrisome by the week.

He’s also worried about the effect on his congregation.

Johnson’s church isn’t much to look at. With only a few hundred square feet, nine pews and a couple dozen worshipers, it is of paramount importance to the pastor.

It is, in fact, a big part of the reason he took the job at Peerless in the first place.

"I used to have a good job," says Johnson on another occasion. "A real good job. I was working for an auto dealer here in Detroit. I was making in one year what it takes me two to make at Peerless."

But five years ago the dealership expanded its operation from five to seven days a week.

"I couldn’t take that much time away from my church," explains Johnson. "My work there takes up a lot of time."

So he started working the night shift at Peerless, leaving days open for church work. For four years he oversaw the night shift, regularly putting in 60 hours a week and more. A year ago, he was shifted over to days.

Now, out of work, he worries what the congregation will think. Will their faith waver, he wonders, when they see their pastor, who constantly preaches the need to place trust in the Lord, apparently being forsaken?

"I’m not sleeping good at all," he says. "I keep asking myself whether I’m doing the right thing."

Johnson says he could have taken raises like some of the others – gotten even more, in fact, because of his leadership role – and kept his mouth shut. No one would have known. Or, when he got fired, he could have called the whole thing quits and moved on with his life.

"But I can’t give up on these guys," he says, as much to himself as anybody. "I couldn’t live with myself if I did that."

Last call

On Sept. 15, the guys are all called to a critical meeting. At this point they think the election is on for nine days later, and that Livernois is not going to be allowed to participate.

The development center’s offices, which bustled with activity throughout the summer, are eerily quiet. The Steelworkers have pulled their computers and other equipment out, deciding that limited resources need to be poured into other locations in the state. To this point, only one union vote has taken place in the Empowerment Zone, and the union lost that.

"I have some good news, and some bad news," Perez tells them.

From the standpoint of the guys, though, very little of what she has to say seems good.

Union officials have finally received written confirmation an election will be held. The date is Oct. 8. That’s the good news. The bad news is the Livernois plant is back in.

Johnson looks stunned.

For the first time, the union is given the names of all employees who will be included in the election, but not where they work. Perez starts to read names, asking where each works. The first five names she reads all work at Livernois. Each name read is like a punch to the gut, taking more and more air out of the guys.

By the time she is finished the final count is 23 eligible employees from the Livernois plant, 25 from Military. The guys know they have a majority at their plant who will be voting yes, but it is by no means unanimous.

Johnson, who spends most of the meeting staring blankly at a proposed contract being passed around, appears to be steeling himself for defeat when he declares, "I don’t care what happens. I will die and go to hell before I give up trying to get that plant cleaned up."

Wandering the wilderness

A dozen hard-core union supporters gather at the Military plant to picket and give workers encouragement five days before the election.

According to Johnson, Tousley got word the previous week that there would be a protest, and the guys heard that the doors to the plant were going to be shut once again to keep them from seeing what went on. There were rumbles of a walkout in protest. In a hastily called meeting the Saturday beforehand, Johnson and Mireles met with the guys, telling them to keep their cool: Don’t do anything that will give him cause to fire you. We’re too close to blow our chances now.

Johnson is there for the rally, in full preacher mode.

Drawing on his sermon from the previous Sunday, he refers to the book of Exodus.

"How long will the children of Israel wander lost in the wilderness while Canaan is just over the hill," he shouts into the bullhorn, veins in his head popping, pulling himself up on his tiptoes as if every ounce of his being is flowing into his message.

As promised, the plant doors have come down. But not all the way. There is a 2-foot space between the ground and the bottom of one door. Johnson comes over, falls to his knees, and shoves the loudspeaker into the crack.

"What do we want?" he yells. "We want justice! When do we want it? Now!"

Two days later, in the final meeting before the vote, only Johnson and Salinas show up to confer with Perez and Mireles, who’s being allowed to keep his job until the vote is concluded.

For the past few weeks, the organizers have been paying house calls to eligible workers, to count votes and possibly sway fence-sitters.

Now they sit and work their way through the list. When finished, they have 17 in the yes column, 5 definite no votes; the rest could jump either way.

"You wait and see," says Johnson. "There’s more yes votes than you think. We could win this yet."

"I hope so," says Mireles. "Either way, this is going to be a real cliffhanger."

Ballot box

Election day is cold, with a persistent, dreary drizzle. But in the lot across from the Military plant, as the 6 p.m. tally time approaches Friday, spirits are high.

He has not seen many workers from the Livernois plant show up, which is considered a very positive sign.

"It looks good," says Mireles.

A quart of Colt .45 malt liquor is passed around. As employees continue to filter in, they keep a loose running tally: He’s a yes, he’s a definite no.

Finally the moment of truth arrives. Mireles leads a contingent of union reps into the plant, where he is confronted by someone who appears to be Tousley’s lawyer. There’s a shouting match over who gets to stay, with the lawyer bellowing about liability and Mireles hollering back he doesn’t give a shit. The NLRB agent, Pat Zane, issues an order for calm and quiet and begins to count the votes.

Later, you can see the tally in the way folks walk, the way they hold their heads coming out of the factory.

The union lost. The vote, according to Perez, is 21-16. Even some of the Military plant votes considered solid must have changed sides.

In the days to come, the guys would speculate on why they lost. They would point to momentum lost when the first vote was canceled, the raises, alleged pressure tactics. There were fears that hours would be inflexible with a union, and that there would be no more advances on paychecks. Some workers were just opposed to unions from the start.

If nothing else, the Peerless ordeal serves as a cautionary tale for organized labor.

"This company isn’t a big company," explains Torres. "They don’t have a lot of political power. But look at how they were able to screw these guys around. We’re one of the largest unions in the country and they screwed us around. If a little company can do this, just think what a big one can do."

In the parking lot after the results are in, it feels like a funeral. Johnson weeps. Salinas is speechless, bowing his head and staring at the ground. Supporters pat Mireles on the back and tell him it was a good fight.

Johnson begins to move through the small crowd, hugging people, thanking them.

Across the street someone inside the factory pulls closed the heavy steel door. It rattles to the ground then hits the cold, wet concrete with a loud clank.

Promises and joy

Torres vows that the fight is not over. Saying the vote justifies the fears that prompted him to halt the election earlier, he notes that all the charges against Tousley and his company are still pending.

"I believe there’s been enough serious charges to have this election overturned," he says. "We’re going to continue to pursue this with all the vigor that’s legally possible."

As for the Rev. Johnson, he was back in the pulpit Sunday morning. Prior to services, he led a Bible study group for few adults and nearly a dozen children.

"Ain’t nothing in life can be gained without sacrifice," he says. Later, he tells the congregation not to lose faith. The Bible, after all, has plenty of examples of God testing his followers. Again the Israelites wandering the desert for so long before reaching the promised land serves as an illustration.

"No injustice can last forever," says the pastor. And with that he leads the congregation in song, his voice loud and clear and strong:

"Through the heartache, through the rain,
through the sickness, through the pain.
Lord, out of all I’ve been through
I’ve still got joy."


Peerless' troubled past

From the outset, union supporters at Peerless Metal Powders and Abrasives in southwest Detroit cited working conditions as a primary reason for attempting to organize.

Throughout the effort, workers repeatedly complained to the Metro Times about the dust they’re exposed to at work. Organizers for the United Steelworkers of America emphasized that the effort would benefit not only employees, but also residents of the poverty-ridden neighborhood surrounding the plant.

Plant owner Paul Tousley refused several requests by the Metro Times to discuss both his company’s environmental record and allegations that he repeatedly violated labor law in an attempt to abort union organizing efforts.

According to Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services (CIS) records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the materials plant employees are exposed to are below levels that would cause health threats. However, labels pasted to barrels being shipped from the plant warn that the material inside is hazardous and should not be handled without a respirator – something Peerless employees aren’t required to wear.

CIS’s analysis of materials used at Peerless show that, among other things, workers are exposed to silica, which can cause the debilitating lung disease silicosis, and arsenic, a poison that has been shown to cause skin and lung cancers, as well as digestive, blood, heart, liver, kidney and nerve damage.

Also, several workers told Metro Times that because state inspections are announced in advance, production is cut back while inspectors are present, keeping them from seeing conditions at their worst.

According to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration records, there is a history of safety problems at Peerless. The company was cited for 24 alleged violations between 1990 and 1998. The most recent violation, in August 1998, was for excessive levels of carbon monoxide being caused by older, propane-powered forklifts not equipped with catalytic converters. The violation resulted in a $600 fine and an agreement by the company to either fix or replace the equipment.

The company also has a history of environmental violations, mostly associated with "fugitive dust" spreading from the plant through the neighborhood. According to records on file with the Wayne County Department of Public Health’s Air Pollution Control Division, the company was cited for air pollution violations five times between January 1990 and December 1993.

Because of the ongoing violations, the company was compelled to sign a consent order with the state’s Department of Natural Resources in 1993. The order stipulates strict guidelines to cut down on the dust problem.

In June, the company was again cited for an air violation when a county inspector, following up on another complaint in the area, saw pouring from the plant a dust cloud nearly 10 times more severe than the allowable limit. According to plant employees and area residents, dust and smoke are frequent problems, particularly at night, when it is more difficult to detect.

In addition to these violations, the company was cited by the city of Detroit last year for dumping water contaminated with waste oil into the public sewer system, according to documents obtained from the city through the Freedom of Information Act.

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