Sunday, December 04, 2005

Garment workers in Florida expose war profiteering

The Militant - June 27, 2005 -- Garment workers in Florida expose war profiteering

Garment workers in Florida expose war profiteering
(front page)

OAKLAND PARK, Florida?For workers at Point Blank Body Armor?s unionized factory here, there is not much controversy surrounding the sale of what the U.S. military has labeled as faulty protective equipment. Most oppose what they describe as company profiteering that has resulted in production of thousands of bulletproof vests sent to GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan that were recalled earlier this year. The U.S. Marines returned about 5,000 of these vests after the media reported they had failed government tests.

Many workers point to the company? use of inferior textiles in producing the ballistic laminate that stops bullets and shrapnel as a source of quality defects.

?The company changed suppliers of ballistic material in order to save money,? Carlos Brice�o said in a June 3 interview. A member of UNITE HERE Local 25-70, which organizes the 200 workers at the Oakland Park plant, Brice�o has worked in the fabric cutting department for several years.

Maira Calder�n, another worker, shared his assessment. The company used higher quality ballistic materials in the past, she pointed out. ?Now they buy from a different manufacturer and the quality isn?t the same,? she said. ?They were looking for a better price. Now the material is softer. You have to use more plies, and it is not as good.? Calder�n works as an inspector and serves on the union local?s health and safety committee.

The observations of these two workers are backed up by an interview ballistics expert James MacKiewicz gave to the Marine Corps Times in April. MacKiewicz tests the vests for the armed forces. He noted a decline in test results in 2003. ?It shouldn?t have happened,? he stated, ?because it was a known system for four years and the results were very high? during previous tests on earlier lots of vests. ?To get results that low was very concerning?it was odd to us.? (For further coverage of related reports by Defense News and Marine Corps Times, see ?Florida garment workers denounce war profiteering? in the June 13 Militant.)

Almost three years ago, the company fired Brice�o for supporting the union, falsely charging him with stealing scraps of camouflage fabric. Workers fought back, however, and won his reinstatement.

Brice�o was the second unionist fired during the organizing effort, which began in the summer of 2002 because of low wages and bad working conditions. Workers said the company rationed employees? water consumption in order to cut down on restroom use, sometimes going for days without providing water coolers during the hot south Florida summer. Isma Sadius was the first to be fired. Sadius was also arrested for ?breach of the peace? after presenting a petition to management asking the company to recognize the union. At a large union meeting after Brice�o?s dismissal, workers decided, ?If you touch one, you touch us all.? Rather than wait for the company to pick off union militants one by one, workers voted to strike if the company fired one more unionist. When the bosses took that action by firing UNITE supporter Midho Cadet a few days later, for allegedly spending ?too much time? in the restroom, workers walked out.

After six months of effective picketing and outreach work, the strikers won their jobs back and the reinstatement of the three fired union militants, paving the way for union recognition and a contract one year later. Both Brice�o and Calder�n helped lead the daily picketing during the strike.

?For the company, quality doesn?t matter, profits do,? Brice�o told the Militant.

Discussing the possible repercussions of the recalled vests, Calder�n said, ?If the company loses business and lays off workers because of this, our union will have to fight to protect our jobs.?

Sewer Daisy Monej�n pointed to the company?s constant speed-up campaign as a reason for the quality problems. ?It?s not the quantity but the quality that matters?lives are at stake,? she said. ?My nephew is in the army, stationed in Germany. He has two Point Blank bulletproof vests.?

Another sewer pointed to a similar shortcut ordered by bosses in order to do the job faster. While normally the stitch that holds the pile of ballistic fabric together has been tacked at both ends, this worker said, a manager recently told him this was no longer necessary. Failure to carry out this operation could make it easier for the stitch to loosen and the fabric to bunch up, making the vest less effective in stopping bullets.

?It?s the union that cares about the workers here and about the lives of the soldiers who wear the vests we make,? said Barbara Bowman, another sewing machine operator in the plant. ?It?s us, the union, who have resisted the company?s attempts to speed up production by arguing that workers must have the time and training to do a quality job.?

Occius Jean-Gilles, another union member, said he opposes the U.S. occupation of Iraq. ?It is a crime,? he said. ?America is not supposed to go around the world killing people?it is supposed to aid other countries. But the soldiers? life is like every other life. Life is good for everyone and should be protected. Workers at Point Blank do not do bad work?it is the bosses? responsibility.?

Eric Simpson is a sewing machine operator at Point Blank?s Oakland Park plant and a member of UNITE HERE Local 25-70.

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