On the road for the union: Organizer wages uphill fight

February 05, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

ST. MARTINVILLE, La. -- Days after a winter storm ushered in the New Year, Sam Luebke is back in this sleepy bayou town, driving down one-lane roads and rain-slick highways, through swamps and along sugar cane fields, past commercial strips and trailer homes, to knock on doors.

He is back visiting the shirt-hemmers and "incheckers," the sleeve-setters and neck-binders, the garment workers he is trying to unionize. He's back at the Comfort Inn in Lafayette, in a room down the hall from the one he lived in for 69 consecutive days before Christmas.

And he's still driving the dusty black Ford Taurus with most of what he owns -- three crates of books (Hemingway, McPhee, Orwell, Nietzsche, to name a few), plastic garbage bags (to pack clothes in a hurry), New Balance sneakers ("the only running shoes made in he United States") Federal Express envelopes, a computer, fishing equipment -- crammed into the back seat and trunk.

If it's Wednesday, this must be St. Martin's Parish. And Sam Luebke, an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, is working the Cajun countryside of this right- to-work state, where unions are about as welcome as cane borers and "No Union" signs outnumber American flags on a small town's Main Street.

Throughout this country, unions have watched their membership decline, while the number of employed people has grown. A decade ago, 20.1 percent of hourly workers held union cards. That is down to 16.1 percent, and unions have begun to realize the need to shore up membership and organize new sectors of the economy.

The new recruits are often young, college-educated organizers such as Sam Luebke. They follow a path worn well by organizing heroes from Joe Hill to Walter Reuther, a tradition that flourished in the factories of the 1930s. They are taught by organizers who honed their skills on shop floors as well as in the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Their challenge is to overcome the blows dealt the labor movement in the 1980s by Washington policy-makers, anti-union attitudes and the shift from an industrial to a service economy.

Mr. Luebke is a believer. At 26, he has "never seen a factory where folks don't need a union."

A former paralegal with a high-priced Manhattan law firm, he left Wall Street for "no fixed address." He's a chain-smoking, mustachioed New Yorker paying union dues instead of club membership fees, the only son of teachers whose family roots span rural Wisconsin and the Chicago stockyards.

This January week, his targets are two Fruit of the Loom garment factories with 5,000 workers, the biggest shop in which Mr. Luebke's southwest region has waged a campaign. The last union organizers who handed out leaflets at these plants got arrested.

"These are little towns, and believe me the police are not all card-carrying members of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]," Mr. Luebke says.

'The same old company'

Today, the "black bull" (as the leased Taurus has been dubbed) is headed for the homes of mill workers, women whose hands grow calloused and knobby from sewing hundreds of T-shirt hems a day.

He pulls into a dirt driveway on a darkened street in Breaux Bridge, a town of 6,515 deep in bayou country. Mr. Luebke climbs the concrete steps of a mobile home and knocks. Two young boys fling open the door. "It's Sam! It's Sam!" they shout.

Charlotte Lewis comes to the door, her head still covered with a hair net, the kind mill women wear to keep lint out. "Hey," she says, inviting Mr. Luebke in and returning to the stove, where a pot of red beans and sausage simmers.

For 17 years, Charlotte Lewis has worked at Martin Mills in St. Martinville, a historic town of 7,100 that is the parish seat and the site of the Evangeline Oak memorialized by Longfellow.

She sews boy's briefs, 48 pairs of underwear per bundle, 44 bundles a shift, about $70 a day.

"They think you-all left," Ms. Lewis says to the union organizer in her Cajun lilt, "and things been happening. They want to know where you-all at."

Mr. Luebke and the other union workers went home for the holidays. "What's been happening?" he asks.

Ms. Lewis opens the stove door with a hand towel, pulls out a hot tin of corn bread and pokes its spongy top. "They never

promote nobody. But now they be taking people's names down who've been there awhile," she says, referring to the promotion prospects. "That's to settle people down, to try and make the people feel good, that like Martin Mills is changing."

"People are going to see it's the same old company," Mr. Lewis says.

"Every time we get a raise, there's more we have to do. They just keep pushing you.

"Every year it get worse. . . .

"They brought me in the office already because of the union," says the 36-year-old mother of three. "[The plant manager] dared me to open my mouth. He told me I was going to lose my job if I ever talk about it. But I always get my word across."

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