Laundry Workers Save the Weekend

Portland laundry workers marched and blew whistles during a break, to protest an unpopular new schedule. Photo: SEIU Local 49.

Laundry workers at Portland Hospital Services had been scheduled the same way for 30 years: four days on, three days off, 10-hour shifts.

Employees liked it that way. Their lives—including second jobs and childcare—were organized around it.

But last fall the Oregon laundry announced it was switching everyone to a five-day schedule of eight-hour shifts. The worst part was that a third of the workers would have their days off split apart, like Sunday and Wednesday.

The change was supposed to produce a paltry savings for the hospital companies that own the laundry.

Unfortunately, the contract spelled out the company’s right to change the schedule. And the plant’s only steward had recently been wrongfully fired.

Two workers mad about the change called up their union organizer, got themselves voted in as stewards—and started organizing to save the weekend.

“The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend,” crows a popular bumper sticker. It’s true: the fight for a decent work week propelled some of American labor’s most celebrated struggles. The Haymarket martyrs were hanged in Chicago 125 years ago because of a fight for the eight-hour day. The wave of industrial organizing in the 1930s crystallized the 40-hour work week with legislation guaranteeing overtime pay.

But too many of us can’t count on those basics anymore, after three decades of employer onslaught. This month, Labor Notes highlights three struggles for humane work schedules. Auto workers are trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario, fighting to win the eight-hour day all over again. Laundry workers had to teach their boss the meaning of the word “weekend.” And retail workers wish they could get anywhere near 40 hours a week.

WE EARN OUR WEEKENDS

Becki Gaylord went into the plant on her days off and trekked to co-workers’ homes to get signatures on a petition. Ninety-six of the 114 employees signed.

The day before the schedule change was to take effect, Gaylord led a delegation of 40 up to the executive office to deliver the petition.

A manager soon called the union organizer to say the change was postponed.

Workers kept organizing. They wore “We Earn Our Weekends” stickers and gathered stories in writing about how the new schedule would hurt workers and their families.

They hoped to get the stories into the hands of board members. Management kept claiming the decision was in the board’s hands, but wouldn’t let workers talk to the board.

Eventually the company agreed to bargain about how to lessen the impact of the change while still saving money.

BLOW THE WHISTLE

The morning of bargaining, workers took their 10-minute break together and marched around the inside of the plant, “blowing whistles and hooting and hollering,” Gaylord says. Management’s bargainers could see and hear the ruckus from their windowed office.

Workers were excited. Gaylord said when she took a bathroom break during bargaining, “it was like a flock of seagulls on a French fry. All of a sudden everybody wants to know what’s going on, everybody’s asking questions.”

The union insisted that management bargainers come down to the lunchroom and hear straight from workers how the change would affect their lives.

Many of the workers are immigrants for whom English is a second language. “It was out of their comfort zone to have a conversation on equal ground with the CEO and a board member,” said Casey Filice, the organizer with Service Employees Local 49 who helped members devise the campaign.

“But because of all the action they’d taken together, they found their voice.”

By the end of the day, management had abandoned the whole plan.

Workers in the laundry are working their old schedule. They have two strong new stewards and more respect from their boss.

And Gaylord said the process was fun. “Never do you get to talk your boss like that,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes 405, December 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Alexandra Bradbury is a staff writer with Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org