When the final story of the UPS strike gets written, I will offer two unlikely heroines: Jessica Gomes, 40, of Gardnerville, Nev., and Carlene O'Neil, 56, of Carson City. They are neither UPS workers nor union members. Until August 8, they were just two working women, stores clerks for five years at Bently Nevada Corp. in Mindenwhich fired them for what they believe.
Minden-based Bently employs between 500 and a thousand workers at far-flung locations. They make high-tech monitoring equipment which detects wear on fast-spinning machinery. Among Nevada industrial types, they are superstars. To Nevada citizens, Bently has disgraced itself.
On August 6, Carlene O'Neil saw the UPS truck coming. She immediately went into Jessica Gomes' office. "I told her to get someone to sign for the delivery because I didn't want to. I felt it was the same as crossing a picket line which I don't believe in doing," O'Neil told me. She comes from a union family. When she was growing up in Long Beach, Calif., her father worked as a union longshoreman.
Jessica Gomes also has strong union ties. Years ago, she served as a shop steward in an organizing drive. Her husband, David, counts among his ancestors Al Madeiros, his great-uncle who once led Teamsters Local 70 in the Bay Area.
"I believe in unions and people's rights," Ms. Gomes told me.
Gomes and O'Neil got a co-worker to sign for the UPS delivery and business went on as usual, or so it seemed. The next day, both were questioned about the matter by their supervisor, one Gene Sorem. "I told him I didn't want to sign for packages from UPS," O'Neil says. "I felt like (UPS workers) or any other American citizen had the right to voice their opinion. I respected that right and would not cross a picket line or sign for package deliveries," she added. A co-worker again signed for UPS deliveries and business went on as usual.
On Friday, it did not. Sorem met with both women. According to Ms. O'Neil, he said "Carlene, because of your personal beliefs and, Jessica, because you didn't sign and because of your beliefs, I've thought it over and I feel I cannot work with you under these conditions and I'm letting you go."
O'Neil was shocked. She not only loved working at Bently, but it's also hard to find a new job when you're 56. She lives in Carson City and does not drive. Gomes is the sole support of her husband and nine-year-old twins. She at least retains a $5.00 per hour part-time job running keno at a casino. (Apparently full-time Bently workers can't make enough to live on.) Gomes spent part of last week applying for food stamps so that she could feed her children.
She also called the Teamsters union, which knows something about worker rights and labor law. The women have now filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They allege that it's illegal to fire people in cases like theirs. Section 157 of the National Labor Relations Act says "Employees shall have the right to...assist labor organizations...and to assist in other concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."
Nevada employers have been stomping on workers so long that they don't even take the time to learn the law. Bently will be investigated by the feds. I hope O'Neil and Gomes get reinstated with back pay and big damages.
They are not blushing violets. Both served in the U.S. Marine Corps, each attaining the rank of lance corporal. "I fought for the right to express yourself, to say what you believe," Gomes told me.
She and O'Neil did exactly that for Americans and Nevadans once again on August 6. With all the stories printed of the national and international impacts on UPS workers, management andrelated businesses, it's the only instance I know where people have lost their jobs just for expressing an opinion in support of the rights of UPS employees.
I nominate Jessica Gomes and Carlene O'Neil for the Hot August Strike '97 Hall of Fame.
STRIKE ONE: Last summer's Hot August Strike during the Reno-Sparks Hot August Nights nostalgiafest is not dead yet. The guards won an unprecedented strike against a northern Nevada hotel-casino, and the largest one to boot. It resulted in the first security guard union contract with any gambling operation, but became a bittersweet victory. Last January, the Reno Hilton folded the department, fired everyboday and contracted out the security service. The guards just won a major round at the NLRB which last week ordered "issuance of an appropriate complaint" against Hilton. A full trial is in the offing after which the workers may win back pay and benefits. Alas and alack, it will come too late to help my friends who have been illegally blackballed around town and can't find other work. Several will soon lose their homes thanks to the greed of the Hilton Corp.
PSYCHIC STEELWORKER: "How will labor come back? In a strike. That's not romanticism, that's a fact. It'll start with one plant. One plant. And they strike. And there'll be guys across the street at a second plant, and they see it, and they think 'Hmm, maybe we can do that.' And they win. Then somebody in Idaho does it, the same thing, independently. And then all of a sudden you're seeing some John L. Lewis again, a leader, but he gets thrown up, he's just riding the thing...That's not romanticism, that's a fact." So said Ed Sadlowski of the United Steelworkers of America, as quoted in Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geohegan's 1992 book "Which side are you on? Trying to be for labor when it's flat on its back."
Look around you. Union activities which normally would never win one column-inch in a local paper are making national wires. Jessica Gomes and Carlene O'Neil got thrown unexpectedly into the fray, just like Sadlowski said. Maybe his wistful prediction from the darkest days of the Reagan-Bush years will come true at last.
Make it happen.
Be well. Raise hell.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988. Part of this column originally published 8/17/97.
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