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(NEWARK, N.J.) – Legal counsel for The Professional Mover’s Union, Teamsters Local 814, has filed unfair labor practice charges against Cort Furniture, a Berkshire-Hathaway subsidiary. The charges filed today with the National Labor Relations Board are based on what union officials say was the retaliatory firing of 19 workers, most of whom had spoken out about poor coronavirus safety practices and who had also recently signed cards to unionize.
The fired whistleblowers and their coworkers launched an online petition signed by a majority of the drivers, helpers, and warehouse workers, demanding their reinstatement and adequate safety equipment and workplace protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“I was complaining to CORT’s management about protecting my coworkers from coronavirus, but instead of listening, they fired me,” said Walter Infante, a former CORT driver. “Just days after we petitioned for a union election on March 10, subcontracted trucks started coming in to do our work daily. Then, a few days after that, the Area Manager told us that our positions were eliminated because the COVID outbreak meant there wasn’t enough work, even though CORT continues to use subcontracted trucks. We are hopeful that the NLRB will find the Unfair Labor Practice charge in our favor.”
According to workers, the company was slow to provide workers any personal protective equipment (PPE) at all, not handing out anything until March 20. Workers kept asking for better protective gear and new protocols on distancing and other safety measures but were largely ignored, they say. Gloves and goggles were finally issued to some workers, although many workers said the gloves were too small and couldn’t be worn without tearing.
In addition, social distancing recommendations were also allegedly disregarded as workers claim that groups of five to six employees were being ordered to attend meetings with management about why they shouldn’t pursue unionization.
“During this crisis, we haven’t felt protected at all,” said Anthony Salcedo, another CORT driver. “The company ignored our safety concerns and seemed like they were more concerned with stopping us from having a union than with protecting their employees. Instead of listening to our requests to stagger shifts, and take other measures, the company actually hired extra sub-contractors and increased the amount of employees working during this time.”
According to workers, the company plans to close the operation tomorrow for two weeks. It is unclear if the potential closure is related to the union and workers asking the State of New Jersey to investigate whether or not the hiring of additional sub-contractors was a violation of Executive Order 107.
Local 814 Organizer Sasha Hammad says that either way, the closure does nothing to remedy the firing of the whistle-blowing employees.
“To fire workers advocating for better safety protocols, in the midst of a global health crisis, isn’t just irresponsible, it’s also illegal,” Hammad said. “CORT is trying to intimidate workers who just want to better protect their colleagues, their families, and the company’s own customers. This is part of a pattern being followed by Amazon and other large employers that are profiting off of their status as an essential business during this crisis, while at the same time tamping down on workers’ right to organize and improve their families’ future.”
“We’re in touch with Governor Murphy and we’re calling on OSHA, the Department of Labor and the NLRB to immediately intervene,” says Julian Tysh, the union’s Political Coordinator. “Companies like CORT cannot be allowed to retaliate against workers who are speaking up to help stop the spread of this virus — the chilling effect of that could be deadly.”