Workers protest on June 14 outside a plastic container factory in Kearny, N.J.
Credit: Samantha Kimmey on Flickr

(WOMENSENEWS)–A group of Latina and Chinese women who claim they faced inhumane conditions at a plant, in Kearny, N.J., are waiting to hear whether the National Labor Relations Board vindicates their charges in an appeal case.

The workers, who molded and packed plastic containers in a plant owned by Pactiv, a subsidiary of Reynolds Group Holdings, based in Lincolnshire, Ill., filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board in October 2011, alleging that Pactiv interfered with attempts to unionize. Under the National Labor Relations Act employers cannot encourage or discourage membership with labor unions.

The case was dismissed due to insufficient evidence on Jan. 31 and the workers filed an appeal in February that remains with the board.

Not only would the women be awarded back pay, but because of precedent set in a 2010 National Labor Relations Board case, that back pay would be subject to a daily compound interest penalty, according to the Labor Relations Counsel. The National Labor Relations Board can also require an employer to rehire the laid off workers.

The workers’ lawyer, Yvonne Brown, said this time there should be enough evidence and that the National Labor Relations Board was time-pressured to issue a decision when the case was originally dismissed, but would not comment further since the case is ongoing.

Pactiv’s lawyer John Toner would not comment except to say that workers were “laid off for economic reasons.”

Reynolds Group Holdings, the famous maker of aluminum foil and plastic wrap, could not be reached for comment on either the workers’ legal charges or their related call for a national boycott against Reynolds.

Pactiv was not available for comment either. A spokesperson has told the Jersey Journal that the subsidiary treats workers fairly but would not comment on any specific allegations.

National Outcry

Since the 1990s the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, a New York worker’s rights advocacy, has supported low-income female workers through its Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign. Many of the workers do not speak English, so the campaign has been critical in advising the group and framing the boycott as a national outcry against mandatory overtime, one of the workers’ major complaints.

Volunteers from Ain’t I a Woman also helped workers organize a protest outside the Pactiv plant in Kearny on June 14 that drew about 100 people, including the laid off workers and their families, representatives from local unions and organizers.

“The company used every conceivable method to exploit us,” said Wan Wen Zheng, a Chinese former worker, in a protest speech translated into English. “The company continuously increased our workload, sped up all the machines and pushed us to the point where we weren’t even allowed to use the bathroom.”

Karah Newton, a mobilization organizer, said the workers were paid more than the minimum wage, but she couldn’t provide more exact information about compensation rates, which aren’t part of the workers’ complaints.

Workers who operate machines that manipulate metal and plastic earn about $31,000 a year, or almost $15 hourly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2011, the average weekly earnings for all such workers was $591. No average for women was provided.

‘Beyond a Single Lawsuit’

Newton said organizers and supporters were striving to present the workers’ grievances in a context that goes beyond a single lawsuit.

“If we just wanted to concentrate on the Pactiv factory, they can delay in the court,” said Newton, in an interview at June 14 demonstration. “They can just ignore. They can intimidate. That’s why we were here today to make this fight much bigger… that’s the only way we will be able to win — win at Pactiv, and win at other workplaces.”

She said the workers’ grievances were nationally significant given Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful push to end most collective bargaining rights in the state.

“In Wisconsin, the right to organize, to speak out, to say something to your boss is really under attack,” Newton said. The Reynolds boycott, she added, would provide another opportunity for workers and their allies to fight back after the failed recall vote against Walker.

According to the workers, the packing department was staffed mostly by women. After they attempted to unionize–so they could bargain collectively for better conditions– about 40 people in the packing department were laid off. The Ain’t I a Woman website says that Pactiv has hired other workers to replace those who lost their jobs.

The vast majority of the affected workers are mothers, some of whom have sick children and are in charge of taking care of their families, said Wendy Tejada, a 10-year volunteer with National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, in a phone interview.

Some former workers are still hoping to get their jobs back.

“With faith in God, I know we will return,” said Maria Majano, who spoke with Women’s eNews in Spanish through a translator at the protest.

Samantha Kimmey is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., covering women and politics this election season.

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