In May, the National Labor Relations Board mailed payments, which ranged from a low of $111 to a high of $15,002, to workers who had been involved in a failed attempt to form a union at Telcom USA, a company that made plastic lawn ornaments and was located in South Lawrence. The company has since left the area and attempts to reach executives were unsuccessful.
The firings four years ago were unlawful retribution for union organizing activities, said Carl Proper, communications director of the New England Joint Board of UNITE HERE, a union that represents many area textile and restaurant workers and which tried to help organize the union at Telcom.
"We lost the election, and ... they fired us," said Orlando Jimenez, 35, of Beacon Avenue, Lawrence, who received $13,344 in the settlement. He said employees at the company had tried to work with managers in 2002 to improve conditions at the plant but were ignored in their efforts.
"We tried to talk to them," he said. "We kept pushing and pushing."
He said a foundry used to make the lawn ornaments was extremely hot and difficult to operate, leading to injuries.
That year, a group of the workers tried to organize at the company, which also had offices in Nashua, N.H., and Tewksbury.
UNITE agreed to represent the employees, and filed a petition in October 2002 with the NLRB for an election to decide if workers wanted to be represented by a union.
In November of that year, an election was held, but the effort failed, on a vote of 52 to 47.
The union filed objections to the election, based on the company having filed an inaccurate list of employees eligible to vote in the election. According to Proper, 20 of the employees who voted did not work at the plant.
The NLRB held a hearing, ruling in favor of the union, and ordered a new election for June 2003.
But in May 2003, the company laid off 41 employees. UNITE charged that those layoffs were in retaliation for union organizing activities, but an administrative law judge later found that only eight of the layoffs were in retaliation for union organizing.
Employee Julio Trinidad, who was involved in union organizing, had been suspended and rehired. The NLRB found he was owed back pay for the days he missed, for which he received $111.
The NLRB ruled that the employees who had been fired should have been rehired after the initial NLRB ruling, so they were awarded back pay as well. Those given back pay include: Eduvigas (Uva) Almonte, $12,216, who acted as an observer at the November 2002 union election and whose picture appeared in a pro-union pamphlet; Heriberta Almonte, $4,834; Maritza Arias, $9,588; Manuel Cerda, $15,002; Rafael DeJesus, $7,032; Orlando Jimenez, $13,344; Samuel Morales, $13,569; and, Ramon Valentin, $13,136.
Proper said the employees should have received more, but that the amount they were granted was the result of a settlement following the bankruptcy of Telcom USA in 2006.
He said Jimenez should have been awarded $26,000, but "because of the bankruptcy, they all got 50 percent of what they earned. It was part of the bankruptcy settlement. They had to get in line with all the other creditors."
Jimenez said he was happy to have received back pay. He got another job soon after he was fired in 2003. Jimenez said he will use the money as a downpayment on a house he wants to buy with his girlfriend.
Proper said that some of the people who were sent the checks still haven't received them.
"One has moved back to the Dominican Republic, and others are back in Puerto Rico," he said. He said UNITE HERE is working to get checks to everyone who is owed money. At least three had not received their checks as of yesterday.
Proper said the fact that it took four years for the workers to be paid for a failed attempt to organize a union is a sign of the times.
"This is an example of what happens today," he said. "And it's the reason we need the Free Choice Act."
The act, which was recently dealt a loss in the U.S. Senate, would have made it easier for people to organize a union. In the past, employees had to sign cards to call for an election on whether to form a union. Under the Free Choice Act, simply signing enough cards would be enough to form a union at a company. There were other provisions as well in the act, which was approved by the House in March but denied by the Senate in a procedural vote last month.
Annia Lembert, member of the executive board of Local 311 at Polartec, who was one of the people helping to organize the union at Telcom, said it's important for workers to know it's OK to try to start unions.
"People from the Latin American community are often afraid to speak up," said Lembert, whose father was an outspoken foe of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. His vocal opposition to that brutal regime forced Lembert's family to flee the country in the dead of night in 1959.
Proper said it shouldn't take such acts of "exceptional courage to speak up for basic rights - fair wages, good benefits and the right to bargain."