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NorthWest LaborPress

Columbia CEO to Starving Workers: Invest in Your 401(K)

Workers are organizing with the Teamsters for better pay and band aids.

Brian Young's picture
Jan 06, 2020

Columbia Sportswear employees are fed up. The clothing giant is facing a union drive from their warehouse workers in North Portland and it’s all thanks to a splinter that a worker received on the job.

Rory Gatto works the swing shift at the warehouse and is one of about 400 workers who process Columbia’s foreign-made apparel. From their warehouse, these goods are shipped throughout the Western United States. Back in 2015, Gatto was just a few months on the job when he got a splinter that pierced his shirt and punctured the skin in his abdomen. A simple injury, Gatto headed to the first aid station to clean it up and put a bandage on it. When he checked the station near his work area, he found it-empty, as he walked around the warehouse he noticed that no one had simple first aid tools like bandages. Without the ability to properly clean his wound, Gatto dabbed it with water and a paper towel and headed back to work. Just a few days later, Gatto was visiting the free clinic with a staph infection from the wound. After talking to his supervisor and attending safety committee meetings Gatto realized that the company wasn’t interested in spending a few dollars to ensure that the first aid stations were stocked. “They kept pooh-poohing it, and pushing it off, and saying, ‘whose cost center is it?’” Gatto told the NW Labor Press.

Gatto spent months fighting the company before he gave up realizing that his effort was getting nowhere. Instead, he began talking to the Teamsters about getting a stronger voice in the workplace. In addition to safety issues, workers complained about the lack of climate control in the warehouse where it was an oven in the summer and a refrigerator in the winter. They also are paid pretty low wages, averaging under $20/hour in a city where the median rent for a 1 bedroom apartment is $1,234 a month. The break room even has signs that direct employees to a phone number where they can access help from the Oregon Food Bank.

In the summer of 2019 after nearly 4 years of organizing, Gatto and his co-workers began organizing with Teamsters Local 162. As the rumblings of an organizing drive made its way through the company, Columbia called in the union-busting firm, The Crossroads Group. Management then sat everyone down for a captive audience meeting where they read off a script telling the employees why joining the Teamsters was a bad idea.

When the typical anti-union boilerplate message didn’t work, the company brought in union-buster Stephen A Beyer who wandered around the warehouse chanting “Union Bad” and claiming to have been friends with Cesar Chavez. Beyer also claimed to be a former union President. While this claim is true, Beyer was thrown out of his union, HERE Local 681, in 1992 after he became too cozy with management, showed insensitivity to Spanish speaking members, and fired a union rep who was raped on the job.

With workers continuing to organize, Columbia has brought in the big gun, the CEO of the company. On December 19th, workers were called into a meeting with CEO Tim Boyle, who is a third-generation CEO at the company. After a short speech where he promised new fans for the warehouse, Boyle began taking questions from the employees who asked, “When somebody says union, what do you think?” Boyle responded “Well, the company has had unions in the past,” Boyle said. “We had a union in our sewing facility we had here in Portland, and we had a union in our distribution center in the past. I think unions have a place. I am a union member. I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild. [Workers laughed, but it’s true: Boyle had to join in order to perform in Columbia television ads, like the one where his mother put him through a car wash to show the toughness of a jacket.] I think personally you don’t need a union here, we have relationships. There are places where it’s appropriate. I don’t believe it’s appropriate.”

Next, a worker challenged him on the fact that he makes over $3 million a year, while warehouse workers are forced to go to a food bank to survive. Boyle responded by suggesting that workers invest more in their 401(k)s and go to college. He said that when the stock price goes up Columbia employees make more since they are invested in the company. Of course, when you are making $20/hour there isn’t a lot of extra money to invest.

While employees at Columbia continue their organizing campaign, one good thing has come from it. Gatto reported that the first aid kits have finally been restocked, right before a visit from an Oregon OSHA inspector.

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