Hello, Kossacks, and Happy Friday. Today I have a story about workers' rights that has been about a year and a half in the making. And, it has a happy ending. (Or, at least results.)
I received word today of a settlement that was reached between the Regis Corporation and the National Labor Relations Board. According to their homepage, Regis Corporation is an "international company maintaining hair salon franchises and training schools in Europe and North America." Regis operates nearly 10,000 hair salons and employs approximately 57,000 workers. Regis is a Fortune 1000 company headquartered in Minneapolis, MN, and their franchises operate under Supercuts, Sassoon Salon, Regis Salons, CostCutters, Master Cuts, SmartStyle and Hair Club for Men and Women. Regis "owns, franchises, or holds ownership interests in approximately 12,700 worldwide locations."
Even though you might assume that a corporation with nearly 60,000 workers wouldn't be able to get away with incredibly blatant labor law violations, they did. This is the story of how one single person in a sleepy upstate New York college town was the catalyst behind an action in support of one single individual who had been wronged, and how a community coalesced around her and ultimately led to a major NLRB victory for the 57,000 American workers of a major worldwide corporation.
For three and a half years, Amber Little was a stylist at the Ithaca, NY CostCutters location. On January 6, 2010, Little was terminated from her position for protesting a new policy on behalf of herself and other employees, an action that the NLRB determined to be "protected concerted activity." CostCutters (and Regis) had implemented a new sales policy which required stylists to sell hair products and accessories--each stylist needed to sell a total of products each shift which equaled 15% of their gross revenue. Little did not maintain this quota and was fired because of it but it should be noted that a part of her termination was her decision to protest the policy on behalf of fellow workers.
Particularly devastating was the fact that Little was in line for a home for her and her children through Habitat for Humanity, and her sudden termination put this home in major jeopardy.
One of Little's clients, an Ithacan woman named Jami Breedlove, went to go get her hair cut by her regular, Little, and learned that she had been terminated.
(PAUSE, INSERT THOUGHT: As part of the larger moral of the story, this is the point where a strong possibility exists that none of the events I will detail would have happened. But Breedlove was upset about the firing, and set out to track Little down and to inform her of the local workers' rights organization in Tompkins County, the Tompkins County Workers' Center. We are all likely familiar with the famous Margaret Mead quote, but in this instance it could be altered to read "Never underestimate the power of one committed citizen to change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.")
Ok, this is the point where things kind of merge together. Breedlove was able to track Little down and got her to the Workers' Center (interestingly enough, she had been there the day before the call). Over the course of listening to Little describe conditions of the workplace under Regis, the cornerstone of the Regis anti-union strategy became apparent.
Regis Corporation had implemented a sort of modern-day Yellow Dog Contract with their employees. A Yellow Dog Contract is a contract between an employer and employee in which the employee asserts that they will not join a labor union. Yellow Dog Contracts were outlawed in 1932 by the Norris-LaGuardia Act. But that didn't stop Regis.
Regis came up with a clever idea of an agreement which they called "Protection of Secret Vote Agreements," which were signed by Regis workers in 2009-2010 and declared that any union authorization cards they might sign would be null and void.
Let's take a mini-detour. Here's Jami Breedlove discussing the issue herself, along with a couple others. (I know a transcript makes the diary longer, but for those that prefer reading to watching or those on slower computers, I am including it.)
From the above video posted on February 6, 2010:
"This is a story about one person taking a stand, leading to others taking a stand...and eventually the community learning to hold the businesses setting up shop here to be responsible to our sense of community responsibility."
"I was a stylist for CostCutters, and I've been working there for three and a half years, and I have quite a big clientele, and we just recently got a new policy where of our total service sales that we make for the company, we have to have 15% of that be retail. And I did not meet that quota, so I ended up getting fired." --Amber Little
"I didn't think it was right, 15%, you know, you're, you know I went to school and yes they did teach us some product knowledge and how to sell some products, but to me, if somebody comes in, they want a haircut. When you ask your district manager, 'well, the economy is in the tank right now and it's right around Christmas time, people are spending money on other things.'" --T.J. Goehner, former barber at CostCutters who resigned his position in order to protest their policies, and with Little, a charging party in the unfair labor practices charge
"I was just outraged, that, especially with a single mother like Amber, she has two small children, and she has worked really hard to get her Habitat for Humanity home. Which, she's supposed to move in by April 1st (2010). So because she doesn't have a job, then she wouldn't be able to get the financing and then she would lose the home and be living in substandard housing." --Jami Breedlove
(good news: Amber and her children did move into her H4H home but at the time it was a bit of a scary situation.)
"People have to come together so that they can show corporate that, ok, what are you gonna do, fire the whole salon? (Note: Maybe.) People have to come together and get together to get stuff moving against a corporate person. If it's just one person, it's never gonna happen. But you get a whole group of people saying, look, we feel this is unfair, it's unachievable, and it's unreasonable, I think you'll get a lot more action than just sitting there and taking it. I don't think that anybody should feel like they're being threatened to lose their job to do something, to sell product in a down economy." --Goehner
"They went in-depth about the unions, like if even one person decided they wanted a union in our salon, even if everyone else didn't, just because they had one person wanting it, everybody would have to have one. So, I didn't understand why that would happen. I would think it would have to be the majority." --Little
--More on the Anti-Union tactics of Regis here, in an August 2009 story written by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times, titled "Dispute Over Unionizing at Montana Hair Salons"
Some choice bits:"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," said Ole Stimac, president of the Central Montana Central Labor Council. "I've never seen anything where you sign away your rights for eternity to unionize."
The document the hair stylists were asked to sign, titled Protection of Secret Vote Agreement, said, "In order to preserve my right to a secret-ballot election, and for my own protection, I knowingly and without restraint and free from coercion sign this agreement revoking and nullifying any union authorization card I may execute in the future."
Mr. Stimac said: "The crazy thing is, this is going on when there has never been a unionization attempt there. Union people haven't been there except to get their hair cut."
"We had to watch this pro non-union video, a couple videos, it was all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it was like late July or August sometime, they set up this mandatory meeting. Everybody had to be there, if we weren't there we would lose our job, it was a no-call no-show. So of course, everybody goes. It's a meeting, you know, everybody goes whether you like it or not, whether you have the day off, whatever. We'd go and watch videos and then one by one after the video was there, they explain to you, 'Well you don't have to sign this, but if you don't sign it you're in jeopardy of losing your job.' And it's nice how they always use that statement; so you're pretty much threatening me with my job, my livelihood, if I don't do what you want me to do. So that's like putting a gun to someone's head, well if you don't sell these drugs we're gonna kill you." --Goehner
"If there's any injustice happening, it just rises up inside of me that you can't, you know, how can you treat people that way? And especially people that are living below the poverty line and especially people who have children and especially women that are struggling to get themselves to a better place. And then it seems like a huge corporation that has no understanding of who their employees are would care nothing about the fact that if you aren't selling enough shampoo then you can't work for their company." --Breedlove
"I honestly want just the people that are working there now to know that they can hang in there, and they can do this. I just want everybody, all their customers, I want everybody in Ithaca to know, you know, there's a stupid policy, and maybe if they do know, they'll be more than willing to help the people who work there now out, try to help them get their sales of product to keep them their jobs." --Little
The Tompkins County Workers' Center sprang into action and emailed their mailing list about Little's situation. On February 13, 2010, just over a month after Little was terminated, over 100 Ithacans gathered in front of CostCutters to call for Little's job back and to inform the general community about what was going on.
Now, I don't know if you've ever been to Ithaca, NY in the middle of February, but to say that these 100 people braved the cold for a few hours to support Little would be an understatement.
The rally was covered by the local paper, although the link is no longer available. People had driven in the snow from an hour away from Syracuse to join the rally, individuals who were part of the Labor/Religion coalition there. A student from SUNY Brockport came because she was shooting a documentary about low income women struggling with social services, as well.
I took some pictures at the rally which seems like so long ago, unfortunately it was just with a crappy camera phone but c'est la vie:
My favorite two are of a friend of mine, a now-but-not-then graduated student at Ithaca College, Samantha, who with a friend ran to each side of the street every time there was a red light to hand informational flyers to the idling cars. I'm pretty sure that not only did her actions result in a lot more beeping, but also helped get the word out to even more people:
Here's some video from the event, with transcript:
Little: We're doing a little protest to help the workers who are working at CostCutters right now--Are you the woman who was fired from CostCutters?--I was fired from CostCutters, on the 6th of January.
Unknown Rallier, talking to a passerby: You see that haircutting place back there? CostCutters? She was fired because she didn't sell enough shampoo. She was only making $8.00/hour, but if she didn't sell 15% of her gross, she got fired. She got fired, she did get fired.
Unknown Rallier #2: I'm here as a Workers' Center member to support this particular worker and the bigger cause about the anti-union efforts by the corporation. Yeah, I mean her firing to me is pretty sad and unfair and outrageous. Hair stylists work very hard and get very little, and then to put this on top of them seems really unfair. And then, to not tell the customer, I also think is very unfair. You have a nice relationship with your haircutter, right? And feel like you're trying to do well by her, you try to tip her and everything, and if you have no idea that your inability to pay eight dollars or twelve dollars for some hair gel is going to put her job in jeopardy, that's unfair to customers as well. But I mean, a horrible pressure on the haircutters. And it reveals this other layer that Regis is kind of a union buster. So I think that's what really makes this a deeper long-term commitment.
Little: I actually had a customer who was trying to track me down, and she finally tracked me down and got a hold of me, and she was like I want you to meet this person, and I actually went there the day before with my aunt, and I talked to this lady and she was like, we got a call from this Jami lady, and I said that's my customer. I guess I'm going to meet with you guys tomorrow, so I don't need to be here, I thought that was another organization that I was at, but it was the Workers' Rights [Center] and we met with them and they've been helping me out ever since. They put this protest together, and they got most of Ithaca aware of what's going on now, and I just hope that it makes a difference for the customers that go in there--that they know if they want their stylist to keep having their job and doing their hair then they need to start buying some product. I actually have a new job, I work at A Personal Touch, but the thing is with that is that my customers don't know where I am at, so business has been really slow for the last couple weeks. It's been really hard, I've had probably about 15 haircuts in three weeks and usually I did like 20-30 haircuts a day when I was at CostCutters. So that's quite a change.
Since we've done this, we've actually had four people from CostCutters write up a little letter and sign it, they did a concerted action type thing, not really a union type thing, but since then they have actually opened the eyes of the District Manager. She had a meeting that I heard about from other employees who still work there. They actually said that she has had a revelation and that she's going to, she realizes that it's hard for some people to sell products, and it's not as easy for them to sell products as is it for her, so as long as you're showing improvement, she's gonna give you a little bit of a break and not fire you right off the bat, so I think what we're doing here is actually gonna help them. Making some progress?
Yes. Slowly but surely.
That District Manager, what a saint.
It should also be noted that while down 6% from the previous quarter, in July 2010 Reuters reported that Regis had fourth-quarter revenue of $590 million. (In a quarter.) That being said, the $8.00/hour wage paid to Little was low enough that Little had to collect food stamps, WIC, Section 8 housing assistance, and Medicaid in order to feed her family, make sure her kids were healthy, make sure there was a roof over their heads, and make sure she was healthy herself. This is an individual who was doing 30 haircuts a DAY and this is the case. WHAT COUNTRY DO WE LIVE IN?
This is particularly egregious in a community where the list of local employers paying a "Living Wage" is up to 70. It should also be noted that the Tompkins County Workers' Center is at the backbone of the Living Wage campaign in Ithaca. The Living Wage in Tompkins County is currently $11.67/hour if health insurance is provided, and $12.78 without. This figure is updated annually by Alternatives Credit Union:
The updated study looks at housing, transportation, healthcare and other necessities, as well as a modest allowance for recreation and savings to come up with the annual figure, up 5% from $11.11/hour two years ago. This figure represents the Living Wage for an individual whose employer provides health insurance. According to the Tompkins County Workers Center, an additional $1.11/hour would be necessary for a Living Wage if health insurance is not included. The minimum wage, set by the federal government, is $7.25/hour. Despite recent increases in the federal minimum wage, that figure has not maintained its buying power over the past thirty years. Returning to the same sources used in prior Living Wage studies, James Fiddmont, a Cornell student and intern through the WISP program, updated the numbers. “It feels great knowing I was able to assist in calculating the Living Wage of Tompkins County. With these calculations the onus is on local businesses to provide their employees with adequate compensation as the cost of living increases,” stated Fiddmont.
Ok, ok, ok. With no further ado, here's the victory part. Thanks for getting this far.
The settlement was announced yesterday.
Regis must remove from its files all of the
Protection of Secret Vote Agreement Yellow Dog contracts that it essentially forced employees to sign. In addition, Regis must post notice that Regis employees have the right to union representation and this will be respected by Regis. Of particular interest however is this: a common remedy issued by the NLRB is a posting that states what the company will do and won't do as defined by the terms of a settlement. However, the effectiveness of this remedy can vary greatly. Many times an employer will post the notice in some practically hidden place for the required time and then that's that. Unless it comes to the attention of NLRB Compliance, that's that. I know of a settlement where the company was only seasonally operational, so when a settlement was offered in winter, the employer said "Sure, we'll post a notice for 60 days!" knowing that they would essentially be closed during that time anyway.
But how do you reach 57,000 employees? In this settlement, a DVD will be distributed to every salon in America where Regis does business, and per the terms of the settlement will be played for every single employee. In the video, a NLRB Board Agent will read the settlement, which in and of itself is pretty intense of terms of what is outlined in it:
NOTICE TO EMPLOYEES
POSTED PURSUANT TO A SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT APPROVED BY A REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD
AN AGENCY OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
FEDERAL LAW (SECTION 7 OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT) GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO:
- Form, join, or assist a union
- Choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf
- Act together with other employees for your benefit and protection
- Choose not to engage in any of these protected activities
ACCORDINGLY, we give you these assurances:
WE WILL NOT ask you about your union sympathies or activities.
WE WILL NOT tell you not to sign union authorization cards.
WE WILL NOT ask you to sign “Protection of Secret Vote Agreements” or “Revised Protection of Secret Vote Agreements” or other agreements revoking and nullifying or limiting the effect of any union authorization cards you may sign in the future.
WE WILL NOT tell you that if you choose to be represented by a union, it is certain that severe adverse consequences will occur, including but not limited to the loss of schedule flexibility or the permanent shutdown of your workplace due to increased labor costs.
WE WILL NOT tell you that you will have difficulties finding other jobs if you join or support a union.
WE WILL NOT ask you to use our hotline to report union activities.
WE WILL NOT promise to remain union free by interfering with, restraining, or coercing you in the exercise of any of your rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
WE WILL NOT tell you that everyone will be able to see any union authorization cards you may sign.
WE WILL NOT in any other manner interfere with, restrain, or coerce you in the exercise of any of your rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
WE WILL remove from our possession all "Protection of Secret Vote Agreements" and "Revised Protection of Secret Vote Agreements" that you signed and we will not give them any effect.
WE WILL remove and destroy all posters that were used in connection with our distribution of "Protection of Secret Vote Agreements" and "Revised Protection of Secret Vote Agreements."
(Keep in mind, anything mentioned in the settlement is something that Regis actually did.) Labor law professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Lance Compa, had this to say:
"The evidence in this case was not just a smoking gun. It was a smoking cannon. The NLRB has taken strong action and sought and received extraordinary remedies to address management’s truly shocking behavior. The workers, too, deserve credit for standing up for their rights. What the company did here is a throwback to the 1920s era of "yellow dog contracts" [requiring workers to sign promises never to join a union or not get hired] which were made illegal by the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, combined with modern union-busting tactics like captive-audience meetings and DVDs filled with threats."
I hope that a union is ready to strike while the iron is hot and begin an organizing campaign at Regis. Fortunately for the workers, the actions of Regis may indeed backfire and lead to unionization of their operations. Little was quoted in the Ithaca Journal today as saying:
"Had I known that I could have helped to organize a union to protest what I thought were unfair working conditions at Cost Cutters," Little said in a statement. "I would have done that in a heartbeat! This whole thing with being forced to sign this anti-union agreement has helped to educate me a great deal about what it actually means to be in and actually organize a union."
A couple brief final takeaways: First, often times workers' centers are mentioned in the same sentence as "union" but sometimes seem to not receive the attention that they deserve for everything that they do for the workers in their community. Please believe me when I say that I could write another just-as-lengthy diary about everything that I have seen the Tompkins County Workers' Center do for workers in multiple industries. One main focus they have at the moment is the establishment of a "Community Union" with community organizers who extend beyond just one trade or workplace to the entire community. I am incredibly proud of them for everything they do. And it's not just in little places like Ithaca; ARISE Chicago is an example of a center in a larger city. I was part of an educational presentation from the NLRB to ARISE Chicago in which they requested information about how to best understand and utilize the National Labor Relations Act. While the presentation was to a handful of grad students, I have no doubt that the knowledge they received which they all furiously took notes on will go a very long way to helping an exponential amount of people that they serve. (And they do it all in English, Spanish, and since it's Chicago, Polish.)
As members of the labor movement, we should work to grow and build workers' centers so that the movement and actions of labor unions can be strongly supplemented in individual communities by these centers.
Second, this to me showcases the ability of just one person to raise a voice which can then be heard by others, and before you know it, you have a movement, or action. Sure, sometimes it's easier to just go about our business; sometimes it's just simply easier to not get involved. But we need to, and we all have to any time that we see injustice occurring. An injury to one is an injury to all. If others are not saying anything and that is a validation for your silence, I'd ask you to consider the idea that if nobody is saying anything, perhaps, just maybe, that's a time that is even more important for you to do so.
Lastly, if any readers are in Ithaca and need a haircut, please go visit Amber at A Personal Touch (behind Triphammer Mall in Bishop Small Mall) or T.J. at Ivy League Barbershop in Collegetown. At the heart of it, it was their unfair labor practice complaints that led to this settlement.
Thanks for reading, peace. -N
PS: In case you hadn't heard, 40,000 TSA screeners voted to become members of the American Federation of Government Employees. Slowly, but surely.