By GAIGE DAVILA
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
On Wednesday, Keppel AmFELS workers voted against establishing a union at the shipyard facility. Out of 793 workers, 247 expressed interest in a union during five months of organizing by the Southwest Pipe Trades Association (SWPTA), a union under the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (UA). In total, 740 voted, with 594 employees voting “no,” and 146 voting “yes.”
To establish a union, a “yes” vote would need 50 percent of the vote, plus one.
The vote was held onsite, where agents from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted the voting from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m., with the decision announced shortly after.
Jason Medina, an organizer with SWPTA, said their next step was to file complaints with the NLRB for election tampering and unfair working conditions, saying there was evidence for both. Medina was told Keppel AmFELS had all of their employees vote, with those neutral to having a union likely intimidated into voting “no.”
This past Monday, Keppel AmFELS employees and (SWPTA) members protested in front of Keppel AmFELS’ entrance at the Port of Brownsville, at 5 a.m., holding signs, waving flashlights, and speaking through megaphones at cars driving into the front gates. This group has been protesting multiple times outside of the KeppelAmFELS gates for the past five months, advocating for better working conditions and wages at the shipyard.
Inside Keppel AmFELS gates were employees with their own signs, advocating against establishing a union. Music blasted loudly through speakers in a car parked just beyond the gates, in an attempt to drown out the pro-union protesters’ megaphones.
The tactic was deployed around a week before Monday’s protest, Chad Tomlin, lead organizer
for SWPTA, said. Tomlin was asked by some Keppel AmFELS workers to help organize pro-union protests.
For five months, SWPTA started protesting every other week up until the last two weeks, where they’ve been protesting outside every day. Tomlin said employees have reached out to him since the protests began, who’ve told him Keppel AmFELS administration instructed them to counter protest each time SWTPA organizers protest.
“(Keppel AmFELS) has 800 employees: there’s not a tenth of them doing this (counter) demonstration. This is a small portion,” Tomlin said. ‘’A lot of them are scared, they don’t want to talk (to us).” Tomlin said employees have told him that Keppel AmFELS leadership has threatened to fire anyone who takes pamphlets from SWTPA organizers.
A few days before the Monday protest, a Keppel AmFELS employee spoke with Tomlin off-site, afraid he would be seen with Tomlin and SWPTA organizers, and told Tomlin that Keppel AmFELS would fire anyone who voted “yes” to a union. Keppel Corporation, Keppel AmFELS’ parent company, has a union in their Singapore facilities.
Keppel AmFELS is currently paying $20-$24 an hour in wages, up from $15-$18 from five months ago, after pressure from SWTPA.
“If (Keppel AmFELS) can come up that much in wages, that quick, that tells you they can probably pay even $30 (an hour).”
Five months ago employees were taking lunch breaks outside in sweltering heat, and only recently received air-conditioned trailers to take breaks in, after pressure from SWTPA.
Ruben Cortez, a board member of the Texas State Board of Education, who is currently running for State Senator for District 27, attended the morning protest in front of Keppel AmFELS.
“It’s not surprising when you see what’s going on in corporate America,” Cortez said. “Corporations talk about how the economy is going so well, but really who’s it going well for? They forget about the everyday working men and women.”
He continued, “This is the beginning of something huge, especially when we get these LNG (plants) in here: we already have organized labor, all it’s going to do is help them get better working conditions and fair wage for an honest day’s work, healthcare, all the safety conditions.”
SWPTA has attempted to contact State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., District 27, multiple times since they began organizing, even attending his “Super Pachanga,” a festival Sen. Lucio threw to announce his reelection campaign, to meet with him and discuss their cause, but have not been successful. Sen. Lucio did not respond to the PRESS’ request for comment.
Hugo Rubalcava, an electrician who works at Keppel AmFELS through an unnamed agency, protested against the union and SWTPA on Monday, saying he did not want to pay union fees or risk being out of work due to contract renegotiation.
“They want to bring better wages and benefits, but they don’t know the consequences,” Rubalcava said.
“Nobody here wants to pay them for something that we don’t need to be paying. They’re promising we’re going to get a better salary, better wages, better benefits, but they’re just promising: there’s no contract saying how much we’re going to be getting paid.”
Rubalcava continued, “If they win, (Keppel AmFELS) has to make arrangements, we’re going to be out seven weeks without pay, because they need to get on the contracts on who’s going to be getting paid how much, and we don’t want to be out seven weeks without getting paid. It’s so complicated, and we don’t need it.”
Rubalcava is not worried of employer retaliation, and says he and the other employees protesting are there voluntarily, and that Keppel AmFELS is not instructing them to counter protest or paying them to do so. “We’re doing this for our own good,” he said.
Union fees, or “dues,” would be around $30 a month. Tomlin said SWTPA has to wait a year before coming back to protest, according to NLRB regulation. saying he wouldn’t stop coming back to organize until conditions improved at Keppel AmFELS. Keppel AmFELS did not respond to the PRESS’ request for comment.
Medina said though he was disappointed with the vote’s outcome, he was glad that Keppel AmFELS employees had received some benefits since the organizing began.
“I hope the company keeps them,” Medina said. “We sparked a change.”