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ittzi iqtttiLd’ %OP A precedent: labor wins one at Laredo Coke By Julia Hathcox Laredo Laredo is an inauspicious place for labor union organizing even in the best of times, when local unemployment drops to levels that would mark a recession almost anyplace else. The last major strike in this cheap-labor border city was mounted in the early 1960s. Hence the surprise occasioned by the outcome of an 18-month fight between 40 unionists and management at the Laredo CocaCola Bottling Company: their newly organized union went the distance, and last month, they won. This is not to say that the victory came easily, or that management was routed in the end. The settlement negotiated two weeks ago \(but not signed as of this writcent memory here. The Coca-Cola truckdrivers and warehouse workers spent more than ten months on the picket line, while San Antonio-based Teamsters Locill 1110, their chosen representative, did battle with their employer in state court and before the National Labor Relations Board. And the one-year contract that has resulted by no means incorporates everything they bargained for. However, as strikers’ spokesman Felipe Urbano Jr. said after the pickets were called in, “We’ve been fighting for a contract all along, and now we have one.” The fight began in 1977, when a number of employees started organizing at the Coca-Cola plant in Laredo’s Del Mar Industrial Park. Their stated objectives were better wages and guarantees of job security from the company. But their underlying complaint, as striker Antonio Villareal later described it, “was that we couldn’t talk to the management. They’d say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ ” Two days before the August 1977 union representation election in which the company’s production employees and drivers overwhelmingly approved Teamsters Local 1110 as their collective bargaining agent, a Laredo Coke representative allegedly told the work force 10 FEBRUARY 16, 1979 that management did not want a union plant and that “not even President Carter” could make them sign a contract with the union. Union spokesman Urhim employees would lose all benefits because of their union activities. Bargaining got underway two months after the election, but went nowhere fast, and as drivers and warehouse workers hit the picket lines in March of ’78, the union formally complained to the National Labor Relations Board that the company had unilaterally reduced workers’ benefits and failed to bargain in good faith. The strikers intensified the pressure by calling with some success for a boycott of Coke products, and began picketing local stores where they were still being sold. Laredo Coca-Cola countered by charging in state district court that Teamsters Local 1110 and Urbano had made defamatory statements and caused the plant irreparable monetary loss, to the tune of $1.5 million. The upshot was union agreement to an injunction specifying permissible strike tactics and expressly forbidding what company representatives had condemned as mass picketing and disruptive demonstrations. The strike settled into a routine of constant picketing, operation of the plant union work force, and continuing stalemate at the negotiating table. There were bitter moments: at one point, a Coke employee claimed she had been fired for dating a striker, while another claimed that a striker had physically attacked her. Union organizers charged that Laredo. Coke was bringing in scabs from out of town and paying them at premium rates. As strikers denied accusations of involvement in a rash of store window breakings, Webb County sheriffs deputies arrested four out-of-town men identified as Coke employees after they allegedly flashed firearms at strikers on the picket line. And the company went back to court seeking a contempt citation against the strikers for violating the terms of the agreed injunction. As they awaited the decision of an NLRB administrative law judge who heard company and union arguments in Laredo last June, the strikers kept going on $45-a-month strike benefits from the union, food stamps, the proceeds from benefit suppers attended by sympathizers, and earnings from part-time jobs. The NLRB decision finally came down last September, and it emphatically favored the strikers. The judge ordered the company to rehire them, reinstate all bonus programs, and begin serious bargaining with the union. Laredo Coke general manager Paul Payne Jr. responded by announcing that the company would appeal to the NLRB’s national level, so the picketers stayed put. But negotiations never stopped either, and late last month the basis for an agreement began to emerge. The union had to withdraw its demand for a dues deduction clause, and also had to do without a stipulation requiring Christmas bonuses. But Coke workers will receive an 8 to 11 percent wage increase \(although for some that means reinstatement at wage’s no higher than the new vacations and holidays; the company will be picking up a larger share of their group insurance premiums; and the contract will specify the grounds on which a worker can and cannot be fired. Twenty-seven strikers are now back on the job, though a few are disgruntled over the concessions their side has made. Six who figured prominently in the strike have yet to be rehired, and Urbano says unfair labor practice charges will be pursued on their behalf if management doesn’t relent. But he still regards the settlement as a major victory. “It’s the first steppingstone in freedom of labor in South Texas,” he says hyperbole perhaps, but pardonable, considering the long odds his union had to beat just to survive, let alone force an employer to sit down and deal. Julia Hathcox is a reporter for the Laredo Times.