Less than a year after leaving the Teamsters union behind in California, Harpers Inc. faces a unionization drive at its Post Falls plant.
The office-furniture maker, a division of Indiana-based Kimball International, was lauded as a source of steady jobs with benefits for Kootenai and Spokane County residents when it opened last July.
Dozens of people applied for each position when the plant opened.
But some of the nearly 530 employees there are asking other workers if they want the Teamsters Local No. 582 to represent them. They say their wages and benefits are less than they were told to expect by management.
To get the National Labor Relations Board to authorize a union-certification election, union organizers must secure union-card signatures from more than 30 percent of the Harpers work force, said Larry Kenck of Local 582 in Spokane.
Harpers General Manager Greg Davis said his employees make more and have far better benefits than the average manufacturing worker in North Idaho.
However, the way Harpers workers are paid changed at the beginning of this year.
Instead of a flat hourly wage, workers now receive a lower base rate of pay. With that base comes an incentive system for production that gives workers the chance to earn more than the previous hourly rate. The more pieces they complete, the more they get paid.
Since Harpers workers’ pay is tied to their productivity, Davis said he didn’t know how a union would help his employees achieve production goals or improve the company.
In memos sent to individual employees, Davis called the Teamsters “the most corrupt union in the country” and strongly urged Harpers employees to refuse signing a union card.
Employees came to the Teamsters late last year with concerns that Harpers and parent company Kimball International had misled the workers on wages, vacation pay and health benefits, Kenck said.
Davis said there were some difficulties adjusting to the new system and that employees may have been displeased with it early on. However, he said, things are running better now.
Employees complained to the Teamsters that delays on the office equipment production lines have prevented them from meeting their productivity goals, Kenck said.
The employees can’t take advantage of the incentive plan if the equipment on the production line doesn’t work correctly, so they’re making less money than before, Kenck said.
If employees have concerns about plant management, the “open, nonconfrontational” system of management in place gives them a voice, Davis said.
Harpers’ employees work in teams, with some employees acting as managers for teams and as liaisons to management. “Each individual has a voice in how we do things here,” he said.
Kenck said that the union drive is proceeding well, but couldn’t say when the Teamsters would attempt to call an election among all the workers.
The Teamsters would like to see far more than 30 percent of Harpers employees ready to embrace the union before they ask the NLRB to hold an election.
Davis said the company would not and could not interfere with the process. “We do feel like we’ve continued our commitment to having employee/management round tables,” he said. “I think the system works well, but it’s up to our employees now to decide.”
Davis said he is confident that Harpers employees make more than the average manufacturing employee in North Idaho and earn more than the average worker in Kootenai county.
A major reason Harpers made the move to Post Falls from Torrance, Calif., was lower costs. When the company moved away, it opted out of the labor contract it had with Teamsters Local 911.
Under that Teamsters contract, the average wage for Harpers was $9-10 an hour. When the Harpers plant opened in Post Falls, officials said that pay would average about $7.50 an hour with benefits.
The Teamsters have two locals in the Spokane area that represent 3,000 workers in the bakery, dairy, warehouse and manufacturing companies, Kenck said.