Questioning their bosses

Pub date June 6, 2006
WriterG.W. Schulz

Telephone interviewers for the influential San Franciscobased Field Research Corp. are trying to unionize but are getting resistance from the company. They have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking that the federal agency oversee their election for membership in an AFL-CIO affiliate.

About 40 of the employees out of 50 have so far signed up to join Communication Workers of America Local 9415, hoping to secure increased hourly wages (they currently start at San Francisco’s minimum hourly wage of $8.62, earning 50¢ or so more if they’re bilingual), a health care package, and other improvements that will stem what they say is a chronically high turnover rate.

Field Research is one of the most respected political pollsters in the state. Major newspapers across California, including the San Francisco Chronicle, regularly rely on the company’s Field Poll to gauge public opinion on everything from electoral candidates and earthquakes to steroids and immigration. The company also performs taxpayer-subsidized surveys for some county health departments.

But Field Research’s employees say they’re not being paid nearly enough to cold-call strangers at supper time to ask them if they support queer marriage rights or whether they think Barry Bonds should be penalized for doping. The workers claim the company offers no holiday or sick pay and requires them to average 37.5-hour weeks for six months before becoming eligible for health care benefits. Their schedules never permit them to meet the average, they say, and predictably, just a handful of workers have the benefits. And raises, they contend, are mere pennies.

When a delegation of the interviewers arrived at Field Research’s Sutter Street corporate offices on May 30 to request recognition of the union, they say, CFO Nancy Rogers refused to speak with them and threatened to call the police. Their only legal option then was the NLRB, which will first direct Field Research and the workers to determine who is eligible to vote on union membership and then set an election date.

"We wanted to say, ‘Look, you’re a San Francisco institution,’” said Yonah Camacho Diamond, an organizer for Local 9415. “‘You pride yourself on integrity. Will you voluntarily recognize?’ They threw us out of the building."

Daniel Butler began working for Field Research in October 2003, he told the Guardian during a small press conference at City Hall June 2. He was soon promoted to a quality monitoring position. But, he says, after he expressed his concerns to management about the quality of survey information gathered by temp workers the company had hired, he was suspended for three days and his position was eliminated. He says he was told that his complaints were "unprofessional."

"The message they were sending was, rather than make an effort to improve quality or encourage better work through higher wages, let’s just get rid of the position that monitors quality altogether," said Butler, who eventually sought Local 9415’s help in March.

Rogers sent a memo to the staff May 31 stating that the workers had a right to a union election, while also issuing a warning that could portend rocky relations between management and workers at the company.

"Many of you think that by getting a union, your wages, hours and working conditions will automatically change," the letter reads. "That is simply not the case. If the union gets in, the company will bargain in good faith, but it will not enter into agreements that are either not in its best business interests or that could eliminate the jobs of many of our part-time employees."

Rogers, for the most part, declined to comment for the Guardian when we reached her by telephone, citing the NLRB’s ongoing procedures.

"All I can really say is this is now before the National Labor Relations Board," she said. "We want to make sure this is fair and equitable and follow due process."

Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the workers at the June 2 press conference that they were within their rights to pursue unionization.

"This is a union town," he said. "One of the goals we have is that people should have a voice at work." SFBG