Immigrant workers vote to join labor union

Electricians came to U.S. as part of exchange program

November 21, 2001|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

In a surprising victory for union organizers, electricians from Eastern Europe who came to the United States under a visitors exchange program have voted unanimously to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The vote, which was formally tabulated in Baltimore yesterday, means the IBEW will have the right to negotiate a contract for the workers with USA-IT Inc. , the Greenbelt company that brought hundreds of workers to the United States from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other Eastern European countries.

As The Sun reported in July, USA-IT has brought about 700 electricians to the United States over the past two years, putting them to work for contracting companies at a base pay of $10 an hour, less than half of what union electricians routinely earn.

USA-IT collects a fee of $5 an hour for every hour the electricians work, and many of the workers complained that it routinely made substantial deductions from their paychecks for travel, housing and other expenses.

Catherine Reynolds, the attorney for USA-IT, was present for the vote count but declined to comment.

Joe Dabbs, an IBEW organizer, said the union was surprised and delighted by the results of the vote.

"The truth has finally come out about the abuses of the J-1 visa program," he said.

Roger Lash, another IBEW organizer based in Baltimore, said the union is cooperating in an investigation of USA-IT's use of the J-1 visa program. The investigation is being conducted by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Union officials had not been optmistic about the election because many of the workers brought here by USA-IT have left the company, some returning to their homelands and others finding work with other companies.

Union officials said the vote is thought to be the first in which skilled foreign workers in the United States under temporary visas have voted to join a union. Under the J-1 program, foreigners are permitted to stay in the United States for a maximum of 18 months.

By the time the ballots were sent out late last month, USA-IT listed 16 workers in the region, which covers Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia. According to NLRB officials, seven workers had submitted ballots by yesterday's deadline.

Five were in favor of joining the union, and two ballots were challenged and thrown out because they weren't signed, making the final tally 5-0.

Ronald G. Burke, national organizing director for the IBEW, said the union will begin negotiating immediately and predicted that the result will be improved pay and working conditions for all USA-IT workers.

"It's definitely a first," Burke said of the election.

The election was ordered last month by the National Labor Relations Board after several weeks of hearings. USA-IT officials had contended that their company was not the employer because the workers were assigned to contractors throughout the region.

Company attorneys also argued that any election should be for the whole country, not just the mid-Atlantic region. Both arguments were rejected in a 12-page NLRB ruling early last month.

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