For years, Wan Zhen Huang, Lili Cisneros and 70+ other packers, worked at the Kearny, NJ factory, making plastic containers for Pactiv Corporation, a subsidiary of Reynolds Group. The overwhelming majority of them were women. They slaved at the machines in sweltering conditions for twelve hour shifts. The containers were mostly shipped to Walmart and Costco.
Around June 2012, in the middle of summer, all the factory windows were closed with no ventilation nor water for the workers. One woman packer could not bear the over 100 degree temperature and fainted. Then, a group led by Mei E. Liang went to the Manager’s office and demanded something be done about the excessive heat. This was followed by a list of demands for improved working conditions signed by a large number of workers. Their demands were ignored by the Manager so the workers went ahead to organize to join the United Steel Workers Union.
In response, the Pactiv management, instead of addressing the alarming health and safety issues, they sent a squad of union-busting staff to the NJ factory from headquarters to crush the workers’ efforts.
Pactiv’s Dirty Tricks
Pactiv management used every play in the sweatshop-boss playbook. The company held constant meetings with the workers to convince them not to bring in the union. But more than that, they went after packers, mostly women, who came together against the sweatshop conditions. “My co-workers from the same team asked a lot of questions during these brainwashing meetings,” says Lin Shu Rong, a packers representative from Team B. She and her coworkers asked what the company would do for them if they agreed not to bring in the union. Little did they know that this was marking them as targets for retaliation by Pactiv. In an effort to placate some of the workers’ concerns, Pactiv fired the factory director, reduced the workload and promised wage increases. Pactiv also threatened the workers they would close the factory if they insisted on joining the Union, bribed some of the workers’ representatives by giving them huge wage increases, and isolated some of those who refused to go along. In this way, Pactiv was able to defeat the union in the election of 2010.
The Workers Persevere
But even with these minor concessions and underhanded tricks, Pactiv was not able to crush the workers’ organizing drive. Under new leadership, workers still continued to come together to speak out against injustice, even though they lost the election. Pactiv then pulled a bait and switch by increasing the workload by 200% and by instituting a web of rules to target those workers who were most vocal. As a result, outspoken workers were laid off or fired. Workers who came back from the bathroom late were given warnings. Mei E Liang, a worker representative who hurt her ankle on the job and reported her injury a day later, was punished. Wang Qin Fang, a packer, says that they even used expired and old warnings to prevent her from keeping her job: “In the meeting with Manager Wu, Wu said ‘you have warnings.’ He said it was because I often spoke out against the working conditions.” In spite of all the harassment and horrible conditions, the workers persevered and Pactiv was unable to stop their efforts.
Pactiv’s Attack Continues
On July 15, 2011, a few days before the workers could file the petition to hold a new union election, Pactiv laid off 60% of the packers and substituted some of them with temporary workers. Pactiv imposed so much mandatory overtime on the remaining packers that it was physically impossible to bear.
In November 2012, right after Super-storm Sandy, Pactiv used this devastating crisis to enrich themselves. Pactiv falsely claimed that storm damage forced them to close their Kearny plant. They used this excuse to fire most of the remaining packers and replace them with temporary workers. To top it off, they used this same excuse to cash in on $13 million in insurance money!
But the workers are not giving up! They are organizing together with other working people, students and many other supporters. Together with the AIW?! Campaign, Pactiv women workers launched a national boycott of Reynolds Group.