Photo: Electrician holds sign “We are not homeless we just work for Skanska” (Courtesy of worker)
By Corey Brooks
For over seven months, workers at the Orlando Health construction site run by the contractor Skanska did not have tables or anywhere to take their lunch break until a local worker stood up and forced the company to act. After Jerry, an electrician working on the site, carried out an independent act of protest, Skanska swiftly built tables for workers.
Rain or shine, workers would be found on their lunch break sitting at the sides of the road, while managers sat in air conditioned trailers. Workers notified the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union leadership of the issue, but they would not take any action other than emailing the contractor.
Fed up with waiting for the company to respond to these ineffectual emails and knowing concrete action was needed, when Jerry took his lunch break on January 18, he held a sign that said “We are not homeless, we just work for Skanska.”
He was laid off on the pretense of “work reduction” within 20 minutes. Jerry stayed during the lunch break to take photos of workers eating their lunch while sitting on the ground in spite of managers intimidating him and lying that he wasn’t allowed to be there.
Jerry went to the job site the next week on January 28 with a larger sign condemning Skanska for not providing a place for employees to take a break, reading “Skanska, we are human. How about a clean, sanitary break area?” He asked Skanska managers who were videotaping and attempting to intimidate him, “if its not OK for you [to eat on the ground], why the fuck is it ok for us?”
Workers on site came out to see him and his sign, despite the contractor trying to move them around to the other side of the building. He said that they serve as important witnesses in case of any potential legal action against him. Jerry did not portray himself as a representative of the IBEW, and wore nothing that identified him as part of the union. Due to the IBEW’s constitution, which seek to prevent strikes, members of his union are not allowed to lead or organize picket lines or demonstrations unless approved by the highest levels of the union bureaucracy. As he no longer worked for Skanska, and he was in a public space, neither the union, the company, nor the contractor could force him to leave.
With this small but effective action, the contractor agreed to build tables for the workers. Lumber to build the tables was ordered the same day Jerry protested and were assembled the following Monday.
These tables still do not have cover from the elements, and workers face other issues: the contractor does not provide respiratory masks necessary to work safely around silica dust, or hand sanitizer for COVID-19 protection. However, the company’s response shows that the workers can force the owners’ hand by standing their ground. Jerry concluded that “if this is what one person can do, imagine what we can do as 50 people standing shoulder to shoulder” and that “[the bosses] know who has the power. But like any bully or thug, until we stand against them, we won’t know that we have it.”
Although Jerry’s IBEW local has strict policies to keep workers from taking action against the bosses, he decided to take a stand for himself and his fellow workers. While the victory is a small one, Jerry’s action demonstrates one way that workers can force the hand of their employers when the rules of the union bureaucracy get in the way.
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