Union Organizing in the 21st Century

Union organizing drives might sound anachronistic these days -- many people who are working feel lucky to have a job. But unions are still trying to grow in New York City, even in areas where they have struggled to gain ground, such as government contractors. Matthew Schuerman has been following the story of a union-organizing drive at an E-ZPass center in Staten Island. Here’s his first installment.

Isaac Colinares, 27, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a worn-out neighborhood on Staten Island. It’s about a mile from his job, where he works answering phone calls and e-mails from E-ZPass customers. He started there two years ago.

For more information on the dispute, see the WNYC News Blog.

"It gives me a sense of stability," he says. "I’m not on my feet. I’m not physical at work."

A few months later, in October 2008, someone invited him to a meeting about forming a union.

"I was new and somebody there could have been there just to see who was going to those meetings and say, oh, Isaac’s being in the union, fire him, since he’s still new."

But he went to the meeting anyway.

"They made it clear to us there’s nothing to fear," he says. "It’s the fear itself that the company gives you is what you gotta conquer. So we conquered it."

Colinares didn’t have any particular grievance against his employer. But he didn’t think it treated his co-workers very well.

For Colinares, a Norwalk protest took the fight beyond Staten Island.

"That company is so willing to let people go and I seen so many people let go for no apparent reason," he says.

Colinares grew up the middle child of five, not far from where he lives now. After his mother got laid off, Colinares quit high school to get a job, only later earning his GED. He’s been working ever since.

"It was definitely getting bad. Those times," he says, "The refrigerator was the pantry."

They lost electricity, but the pantry was cold enough to keep the milk from spoiling. He joined Zulu Nation, a youth organization that promotes hip-hop culture. But Colinares says sometimes it came across more like a gang. One night he got jumped outside the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. He got hurt so badly, he went to the hospital.

"It was a life-changing scenario. Because I’m saying to myself, Who am I fighting for? Who am I fighting these kids for?"

He quit Zulu Nation. Years later, he’s found himself in a different kind of fight. He’s become one of the leaders in the campaign to unionize the call center.

In his bedroom, near a computer where he mixes hip-hop music, he keeps his collection of union buttons.

"Then I made my own. Mine were about three inches, they said CWA, the person’s name, and then we said united we stand."

CWA stands for Communications Workers of America. In May, workers at the E-ZPass Call Center voted in favor of unionizing, 144 to 126. The employer, Affiliated Computer Services, appealed the election results to the National Labor Relations Board. But there are three vacancies on the board, thanks to a gridlocked Congress. Until they’re filled, the dispute can’t be resolved.

That leaves workers like Colinares in limbo, without a contract, or any sense of security.

A little after 6 a.m. on a chilly Friday in February, Colinares and a handful of other union members show up in a parking lot on Staten Island. It’s right outside the union’s office. Just a quarter mile away, one can see the E-ZPass call center itself, located in an anonymous-looking four-story building. Affiliated Computer Services runs the center for the Port Authority, the MTA, and the New York State Thruway Authority.

The union rented a mini-bus to drive to Norwalk, Conn., where a corporate board meeting is taking place.

300 people work at the E-ZPass customer service center on Staten Island.

An hour and a half later, they arrive on the edges of an office park along MetroNorth tracks.

They meet CWA members from Norwalk.

They pump up a giant inflatable rat, about 12-feet tall, opposite the corporation’s driveway. The rat’s the symbol the labor movement uses to point out anti-union companies.

It’s not a great place to hold a protest. There aren’t many people walking or driving by. But still, for Colinares and the other union members, it’s a coming out party, the first time they’ve taken their fight beyond the confines of Staten Island.

"It’s cold. It’s public. It’s a good feeling," Colinares says.

Union members protest outside a shareholder meeting in Norwalk, Conn.

A couple of members enter the meeting, and give a brief statement to shareholders. But their main audience is outside: the handful of reporters and cameramen from Connecticut media outfits. After a couple of hours, the union declares the trip a success and they go home.

But not all employees support the union.

At WNYC’s request, the company that runs the call center arranged an interview with an employee who opposes the union. Adrienne Hirak is a 31-year-old single mother of two. A company spokesman listened in on the call.

"ACS has done a lot for me in the nine years that I’ve been here," Hirak says.

When you ask E-ZPass workers why they dislike their employer, they usually complain about the new compensation system. Instead of a standard rate, employees get paid based on how many calls they take an hour, and how well they handle those calls. For Hirak, the new pay system’s turned out to be profitable.

"I went from making $15 an hour to $30," she says.

The company says three-quarters of workers have increased their pay.

"It’s allowed me to go back to college, to get a degree. It’s allowed me to spend more money on the children doing things I couldn’t tell them they could have before, like my daughter wanted to go to dancing school for a really long time and I couldn’t afford before, but I can now."

Union supporters say she’s an exception. They portray the new pay system as an old-fashioned speed-up scheme.

But Hirak sees the union as a distraction. She says she has better uses for the money that would go to union dues, once, or if, the company agrees to negotiate a contract with the CWA.

"I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself," Hirak says. "I don’t need a third person such as a union to talk for me and get what I need."

Last week, the company laid off 14 employees. The union filed a grievance with government labor officials. But that too awaits action from Washington, still frozen in winter’s gridlock.

We will be revisiting the call center over the coming months. For more information on the dispute, see the WNYC News Blog.