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Printing Problems

Workers at local Quebecor plants attempt to organize.

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Five new charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board against the Covington and Olive Branch plants of Quebecor World, a commercial printing company with facilities through North America. The charges were filed by supporters of the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU), who claim they are facing harassment while trying to organize unions at both plants.

The charges filed last month were added to 22 existing charges filed earlier in the year.

In addition to legal action, the GCIU has organized a campaign to help workers fight for representation. Numerous pro-union rallies have been held at the two plants over the past few months, and another is scheduled for Saturday, December 11th. Matt Brown, an organizer for GCIU, said the Memphis Quebecor plant has a union, and its employees often join Covington and Olive Branch workers at pro-union rallies.

In response to charges filed by Mid-South plants, as well as other non-union Quebecor plants across the country, several authors are encouraging their publishers to boycott Quebecor. Novelist Barbara Ehrenreich is leading a "Writer's Call to Justice" campaign encouraging other authors to join the boycott.

"Quebecor has had a pretty ugly history in the South when it comes to organizing drives," said Brown. "With that in mind, the union decided the best strategy is to launch a campaign taking the workers' struggles and their issues outside of the plant. We're taking them to the community and to elected officials."

One way they're doing this is by encouraging workers to file charges against the plant when they feel they are being harassed about their union activity. Lamarcus Hicks, a former worker at the Covington plant, filed a charge claiming unjust termination. He believes he was fired for his union activity.

"They said I missed a cracked [printing] plate. I was a stacker at the plant, and I checked for damaged plates, but the particular plate they said was cracked wasn't mine," said Hicks. "It was another stacker, a new hire, who had the cracked plate. But they knew I supported the union."

The other new charges relate to management at both plants creating "an air of futility" around the topic of union organizing. Workers claim union supporters are constantly harassed and put under workplace surveillance.

Company representatives from both the Covington and Olive Branch plants did not return phone calls by press time.

Larry Johnson, a maintenance mechanic who has worked at the Olive Branch plant for 16 years, said work conditions deteriorated after a new management team arrived last year. He said tenured employees were demoted and given pay cuts, prompting employees to look at forming a union.

"We've been here so many years, and people have given half their lives to this plant, and now with the management team that's come in, they don't want to recognize us as human," said Johnson. "They demoted about 25 to 30 people and gave them $6 to $8 an hour pay cuts."

Johnson wears purple T-shirts to show his union support, and he said management has been telling him they don't like the shirts. He said he and other GCIU supporters are called into the office regularly and intimidated by management.

"They have these roundtable discussions where they call me and several others into the office with about 15 non-union supporters, and then they try to belittle us and put pressure on us to stop our union activity," said Johnson.

Mary Halliburton said she was one of the employees who was demoted at the Covington plant. After working as a counter feeder (employees who feed sections of a book into a binding machine) for two years, she was promoted to bind operator and given a pay raise. But after working in that position for four years, she says management told her she "did not know how to do her job" and demoted her back to a counter feeder with a pay cut.

Workers also complained that while many of the plant's employees are African-American, very few African Americans are in management positions. According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge, African-American women comprise 34 percent of the staff at the Olive Branch plant, yet there are no African-American women in management positions. Ninety-six percent of the African-American workers at that plant hold the lowest job categories in the plant, yet many say they're scared to leave for fear of not being able to find other jobs.

"Once you've been here for so long, you can't just walk away and try to start over again," said Johnson.

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