International solidarity helps Bakery Workers win at Dannon

MINSTER, Ohio (PAI)—International union solidarity—enlisting 56,000 unionized Dannon yogurt’s workers in Europe—was the last missing piece that produced a Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers win in Dannon’s biggest U.S. plant, in the rural, GOP-dominated area of Minster, Ohio, the union’s organizing director says.

In an interview during the AFL-CIO-sponsored conference of international organizers, which drew 200 activists from 63 nations—everywhere from Albania and Azerbaijan to Fiji, Hong Kong, Togo and Venezuela—BCTGM Organizing Director David Durkee explained in detail how international solidarity led to the 161-119 win on Dec. 6.

The win will bring union representation to the 350-worker facility, the largest of Dannon’s four U.S. plants. Others are in West Jordan, Utah, Londonderry, N.H., and Fort Worth.

“Within this global economy, this was an overwhelming show of global solidarity,” BCTGM President Frank Hurt said in the Ohio victory announcement.

The AFL-CIO called the conference to brainstorm on ways to link unions together for organizing and joint campaigns. As speaker after speaker said, with the world economy increasingly dominated by multi-national corporations—6 of the 10 biggest economic entities worldwide—unions have to become multi-national, too, to combat them successfully. Every union there, including Change to Win unions, agreed.

That’s what BCTGM did after its campaign began in Minster, Durkee said. But becoming multi-national in an union context did not mean a merger. It meant enlisting the aid of sister unions that represented Dannon workers in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland—Solidarnosc—and the Czech Republic, all contacted through the international federation of food workers’ unions that BCTGM is in.

The campaign started, Durkee said, over the Internet—which is how BCTGM contacts all potential members these days. Key issues “weren’t wages. These were the best-paid people in their area.” Instead, the problem was management’s drastic changes to round-the-clock seven-days-a-week work—and arbitrary transfer of workers from one shift to another, without consultation or regard for family needs. And seniority was ignored, he added.

“The workers always felt they were part of the company, and all of a sudden they felt like drones,” he said. So they contacted BCTGM through its website. But soon after the organizing drive began in January, management got wind of it.

Dannon, which is French-owned, long ago signed pacts sponsored by international union federations, respecting the workers’ right to organize. But Dannon’s U.S. managers reacted as other U.S. corporations do to union drives: with hostility.

BCTGM responded with one-to-one house-calling—and more. “We also had a fairly sophisticated group of workers and they established their own web site and web pages” to counteract company tactics and anti-union propaganda, Durkee explained. “They could also read about the union in the privacy of their own homes, not be seen taking a pamphlet” just outside the plant, under the eyes of supervisors, he noted.

But even with all that, the company’s U.S. managers intimidated the workers, despite the French corporate management’s pro-union stand, which it has implemented in Europe. So BCTGM turned to the international confederation of food workers’ unions to turn the situation at Dannon in Ohio around.

The workers in the European unions made clear to Dannon management there that unless there was progress, rather than intransigence, in the U.S., protests would arise at Dannon’s European plants. The result was a meeting in Geneva, earlier this year, between the U.S. unionists—including Durkee—and Dannon’s CEO. The unionists made the point that Dannon signed the convention recognizing its workers’ rights and that its U.S. management was engaging in anti-union tactics that would never be allowed either under that pact or in the European plants.

“He listened a lot and I don’t think he was very happy about the situation, but things didn’t change that much,” Durkee added. So the campaign continued, and the U.S. management finally moved after a group of 60 workers marched into the Minster corporate office with a majority of signed union authorization cards—and after BCTGM told its union colleagues in France about the updated situation and resistance.

The French unionists “didn’t understand why a secret ballot election in the U.S. doesn’t work” for unionists here, Durkee said. He referred them to the famous Human Rights Watch report on weak U.S. labor law and pro-management campaigns and terrorizing of unionists, issued seven years ago.

They raised pressure on Dannon in France, which in turn told its U.S. managers to stop the anti-union tactics and let the NLRB-run election proceed. BCTGM won.

“It wouldn’t be possible without those unions that stood up for us” overseas, Durkee says. The change was so quick that “we’ll have our bargaining proposal meeting, and our stewards and negotiating committee elected by Christmas.”

And Dannon’s other two U.S. plants are in BCTGM’s plans. The objective: make it 100 percent union.