Crushin’ It Apparel workers fight to get their jobs back after the company’s owner suddenly closes shop.
By a vote of six to zero, screenprint workers at Crushin’ It Apparel on Voges Road in Madison last month elected to form a union. However, soon after employees launched the union election, owner Jeremy Kruk began a series of layoffs that would eventually encompass his eight screenprinters and embroiderers.
The business will remain open, but Kruk said it will now outsource many or all of its custom orders to other stores.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released the result of the union vote on its website November, 1st. Of the 11 employees eligible to participate in the election, seven vote. One sucked and the other six indicated their support for organizing with Local 802 of District 7 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT). unionized workers are trying to get their jobs back.
IUPAT will lead the negotiations for the workers as their new union representatives. IUPAT trade representative Adam Gifford says the layoffs haven’t changed the workers’ immediate future. IUPAT will pursue a contract, although exact timelines remain up in the air.
The first step to reaching an agreement will be to reinstate the dismissed workers. The union has filed unfair labor practice allegations with the National Labor Relations Board against Crushin’ It, essentially arguing that Kruk shut down production to retaliate against workers. Kruk, meanwhile, says he is moving forward with plans to sell the company’s equipment.
“Due to the company’s financial constraints, we have closed these divisions and will no longer produce them. We have sold or are in the process of selling all the equipment,” Kruk told the capital time in a November 1 story. “This door to my life is now closed.”
Recover lost jobs
Kruk tells Your Madison that the decision to lay off staff was unrelated to the union’s vote and was instead based on its desire to sell the equipment they operated. Although he acknowledges putting the machines up for sale publicly after workers began organizing in August, he says he tried to find buyers privately as early as June.
Gifford did not engage in speculation about what the union’s next move might be if Kruk stuck to his guns and continued selling the equipment. Instead, he reiterates IUPAT’s commitment to getting Crushin’ It employees back to work.
Kruk lamented what he saw as a concerted effort to destroy his livelihood. “Unions are professionals in destroying businesses,” he says.
“That’s not at all accurate,” says Gifford. “[Crushin’ It Apparel staff] wanted a union. Gifford points out that workers led all organizing efforts until the election.
The organization of Crushin’ It’s screenprinters began in August when five store employees walked into the South Madison offices Wisconsin Justice Workera small non-profit organization that focuses on advocating for immigrant workers in the region.
Crushin’ It staff who met with Worker Justice formed an organizing committee and wrote a letter asking Kruk to cool the workplace to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They also demanded a $4 an hour pay raise, proper protective gear, and clean bathrooms.
They submitted the letter on August 26.
Kruk threatened to fire anyone who did not remove their name from the letter the following Monday. Nobody did. Kruk followed and fired the signatories.
Worker Justice helped employees file a complaint with the NLRB and organized a strike that drew several dozen community members to picket alongside Crushin’ It workers.
Robert Christl, program director for Worker Justice Wisconsin, said an NLRB agent contacted the store owner a few days later. The next day, Kruk invited all of the fired Crushin’ It’s staff to return to work.
The organizing committee chose to respond by pushing for a union. The NLRB scheduled a mail-in vote, and support for unionization was unanimous. Now, Kruk has let the staff go again, this time without citing attempts to organize as a reason. US labor laws prohibit employers from firing staff for attempting to unionize. However, many workplaces (Starbucks being a prominent and recent example) find other reasons to fire union leaders before a union can grow.
Christl reiterates that the workers will continue on the union path, which means that they will then try to negotiate a contract with Kruk. Worker Justice will continue to support workers as interpreters for those who do not speak English and rally community support.
The Crushin’ It owner made several other contradictory statements during an interview with Your Madisonfocusing on the claims his workers had made against him.
Kruk says his workplace had three “working” bathrooms and complains that the organizing committee’s initial request letter incorrectly described a toilet as being on the second floor of the companies. But the workers complained about the cleanliness bathrooms, not their specific location in the workplace.
Kruk says a representative from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration measured the heat at his plant and “passed it,” but he didn’t specify what temperature the shop measured and if it was higher than the 80 degree mark requested by the workers.
He characterizes protesters demonstrating in solidarity with his staff as an intimidating “crowd”. However, he also points out that he provided water to the several dozen people present.
During our interview, Kruk also made a series of conflicting statements about salary. He sought to highlight how generously he paid his employees by pointing out that one of his highest-paid workers was earning $22 an hour before the layoffs. Later in the interview, while justifying his need to cut staff, he said that due to the current state of the job market, a skilled industrial sewer could expect to earn between $25 and $30. Of time. A Crushin’ It job advert posted in April advertised a salary between $16 and $19 an hour.
Kruk repeatedly wondered out loud during the interview why his employees would feel unfulfilled when they had access to free sodas and snacks from a company refrigerator.
Kruk says he felt worker organizers were targeting employees he called “easily influenced,” calling it a “pity.”
Gifford pushes back against these claims, saying that Kruk galvanized his own staff against him before and during the organization. “They weren’t respected,” Gifford says.
In his comments to Your Madison, Kruk has repeatedly spoken of his need to support his two children. Gifford sympathizes with that sentiment, but points out that the majority of laid-off staff also have children and families to support. “It shouldn’t come at the expense of others,” Gifford says.
There was also the issue of compensation. Christl says that in the brief months that he and other Worker Justice staff helped Crushin’ It employees, several of the workers had struggled to get their cash paychecks. Christl called the problem “a pervasive problem”.
Employees also described working in an intolerably hot environment. Management had demanded that they work through the heat waves without any sort of climate control. Staff have resorted to purchasing their own portable air conditioning units to make the work bearable. No one was cleaning the bathrooms, they told Christl, rendering the facilities unusable.
Workers also felt that management had not done an adequate job of metering new work orders, leading to lulls at the start of the week, followed by a mountain of orders the following days.
Kruk remains within its rights to sell the equipment, although the NLRB may decide that it wrongfully terminated their operators and demand that it rehire them. Whether the company’s finances have deteriorated or not, only he knows.
“Before, it wasn’t about profits,” says Kruk, implying that the push for unionization has somehow turned his for-profit business into a lucrative one. However, during our interview, he backtracked on that assertion, repeatedly emphasizing how much he needed the business to support his family. Kruk also claims the business earned him and his wife $30,000 a year, wages close to misery for a family of four.
If Kruk really didn’t care about profits, you have to wonder why he would want to sell the screen printing and embroidery equipment. He did not address this contradiction in our interview.
“Sick of it”
The successful Crushin’ It union campaign is just the latest in a wave of union campaigns that have taken hold both in the Madison area and across the country.
Workers across the country have recently led a union organizing drive not seen in decades. In Wisconsin, unionization rates among the workforce have plummeted since 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislative Assembly passed Bill 10, which banned some public sector employees from unionizing. .
Legislation soon followed that made Wisconsin a so-called “right to work” state, meaning workers could work in a union store without paying union dues.
That cases like Crushin’ It represent a reversal of the tides remains to be seen, but Gifford says it’s time to challenge labor market trends over the past few decades that have favored employers.
“The workers have been mistreated and the workers have had enough,” Gifford says. “And that’s what unions are for.”