For Anita Anderson, working as an operator/trainer at the Lipton Tea factory in Suffolk, Va., could not have been more stressful. For two full years, she and her co-workers were forced to put in 12-hour shifts for 13 consecutive days before they could get a single day off.
“We were off only two days out of every 30,” she said, due to the company policy known as “drafting.” “There wasn’t enough time to be with our families or see our children, and we knew that families would be torn apart if it kept up. And people were getting hurt because they were too tired. Back strains, hand lacerations, slips and falls were common. One injury is one injury too many.
“Making matters worse, if we spoke up, we were reminded that our jobs were voluntary and if we didn’t like how things were or if we were unhappy, we had the option to leave, as in QUIT,” she added. “This left several employees feeling unappreciated and it definitely sent us the message that management was unbothered by our feelings.”
Anita was also frustrated by minimal cost-of-living pay increases and rising health care costs. But then, a co-worker suggested they join Local 400. “When he approached me, I was excited about it, I wanted to know more about it,” she said. Before being hired by Lipton 11 years ago, Anita worked at the Newport News shipyard where she was a union member, so she knew what union representation could do for them.
Anita and her co-workers started meeting in a parking lot at a restaurant near the plant, and soon they met with Local 400 organizer Kayla Mock. “We felt that for the first time, someone was listening to us,” Anita recalled. “We took our union cards to work with us and spoke to our co-workers about why they should sign. Then, workers from other plants came down to stand with us.”
A pivotal moment in the campaign was when Anita and her co-workers spoke by telephone with Chicago Hellman’s workers, who are members of UFCW. Hellman’s and Lipton are both owned by Unilever, an international conglomerate. “We got to ask about their pay, benefits and working conditions. And we learned that what they have is much better than what we’ve gotten until now. As soon as we showed our co-workers the difference, cards started coming in left and right.”
Another key development happened in June 2016, when Lipton hired a new plant manager, who stopped the drafting policy. “This was a very good thing,” Anita said, “But we also saw clearly that our efforts to get a union were at least part of the reason why they decided to do this.”
In late July, the Lipton workers filed an application for a union election, and the date was set for August 26th—which also happens to be Anita’s birthday. Throughout election day, Anita recalled, “I was in the room with the judge representing the government. I wasn’t allowed to hold a conversation, but I couldn’t sit still, either. I was so anxious and so excited. Then, after the polls closed, as we tallied the vote and saw the yes votes pile up, I was literally screaming inside because I knew we had won. That night, it felt so good. We walked away knowing we finally had a voice. We let management know you can’t keep treating us any way you want, can’t keep taking away our benefits, can’t do drafting anymore.”
In the wake of their remarkable victory, Lipton workers are now in the process of negotiating their first contract, and Anita is an alternate on the Bargaining Committee. While no outcome is guaranteed, she said she’d like to see “Better health coverage. Every year our health care costs go way up, but we’re only getting basic cost-of-living increases. We’re the driving force making Lipton money. The corporation says we’re doing well and always in the green. They should reward us for that. We don’t want to see forced overtime come back either.”
A resident of Chesapeake, Va., and the mother of two children and two stepchildren ranging in age from 19 to 27, Anita said that since she joined Local 400, “I am learning more and more about my workplace rights. I can ask a co-worker to be present at a meeting. And management can’t put something in my personnel file without them notifying me—something they did all the time before.
“Being a Local 400 member means I don’t have to take everything the company says or does to me,” she said. “I don’t have to sit back and let them treat me any way they want. I can go to management and voice my opinion and even if they try to turn a deaf ear, someone is there to listen and to act.”