Poll position

Pub date July 18, 2006
WriterG.W. Schulz

› gwschulz@sfbg.com
A San Francisco–based political pollster is showing there’s little it won’t do to keep an AFL-CIO affiliate from organizing its phone-bank operators.
The respected Field Research Corporation provides survey data for major newspapers across California, including the San Francisco Chronicle. The company is perhaps best known for its Field Poll, which gauges public opinion on everything from electoral candidates and earthquakes to steroids and immigration. The company also performs taxpayer-subsidized surveys for some local government agencies.
In June the Guardian reported that 80 percent of the company’s 50 or so phone surveyors had signed a petition to join the Communication Workers of America Local 9415, hoping they could negotiate wage increases (they get San Francisco’s minimum right now, $8.62 an hour, with 50 cents extra if they’re bilingual), greater health care opportunities, and general workplace improvements. Some workers told us in June that current conditions promote a high turnover rate.
The company refused to recognize their petition, however, so now the National Labor Relations Board will oversee an election scheduled for July 20. Since our last story [“Questioning Their Bosses,” 6/7/2006], Field Research has instituted an aggressive campaign to discourage workers from joining the CWA by distributing inflammatory memos that suggest the union would work against their interests and not do much more than collect dues.
“Unfortunately, [the tactics are] par for the course for corporations these days,” said Yonah Camacho Diamond, an organizer for Local 9415. “However, the one surprising thing with Field Research is they have public projects. They’re seen as having a lot of integrity, but these are Wal-Mart tactics. We’ve got solid supporters, but this stuff is taking its toll on the workers. It’s coming at them daily.”
A memo to employees sent out by chief financial officer Nancy Rogers invites them to attend a paid “session” in which they’ll be given “factual answers to your questions” about union representation. The sessions for the most part appear to demonize the CWA and warn in grave terms what could happen to the workers’ pay if they go on strike. One handout suggests their hourly wage could drop more than three dollars to the federal minimum of $5.15, based on a strange interpretation of the city’s minimum-wage ordinance. Another handout features a table that purports to show how little any wage increase resulting from a strike would benefit them.
“This chart shows the length of time needed for you to make up losses (assuming you were not permanently replaced) during a strike if the union calls for one and then later gets you a 50 cent per hour increase,” the page reads. “We hope this would not happen here, and we would bargain in good faith, but you never know.”
Using Local 9415’s own annual financial reports, the handout goes on to imply that the CWA spends union dues enriching its own staff administrators. The union told us that, in fact, some 80 percent of 9415’s income goes to representing its members. The local’s president earned $57,000 last year.
Another memo sent to employees by Rogers in May threatens, “Many of you think that by getting a union, your wages, hours, and working conditions will automatically change. This is simply not the case.” She writes that the company would not enter into agreements that could “eliminate the jobs of many of our part-time employees,” despite concerns expressed by at least one employee about the quality of survey data produced by temp workers. The employee, Daniel Butler, claimed to us in June that he was suspended for three days as a result of his complaints.
On July 11, Sup. Chris Daly proposed a resolution condemning Field Research’s “unethical actions to intimidate employees” and the company’s “antiunion ‘captive audience’ meetings.”
“Field Research Corporation has revenues in the millions of dollars, only pays pennies above the minimum wage required by San Francisco law, and doesn’t offer health care to the overwhelming majority of their employees,” the resolution reads. The full board was scheduled to consider the resolution July 18, after our deadline.
CFO Rogers and Field Research site manager George Nolan did not return calls seeking comment.
One phone-bank operator, Oriana Saportas, who commutes from the East Bay for 22 hours of work each week, admitted she believed some of the workers who originally signed the petition had been persuaded to vote against Local 9415 by Field Research’s antiunion campaign. She said that during the information sessions the employees were divided into four groups, including one group containing those who seemed to be most in support of the union. She says now she’s not entirely sure which way the election will go.
“I asked [Field Research] how we could have a voice without a union…. They didn’t really give me a straight answer,” Saportas said. “Not every institution is perfect. Not even the union. I know that. But we need a voice.” SFBG