Article from the Sept 2004 edition, Socialist Voice

How we unionised Flextronics

FLEXTRONICS, THE multinational semi-conductor manufacturer, has 101 factories in 32 countries. Socialist Voice spoke to a shop steward on how they unionised the Limerick Flextronics factory.

(Flextronics workers are prohibited from talking to the media about internal company issues, which is why the shop steward is not named. Fighting this restriction is on the workers agenda!)

What were the conditions in the factory like before the union?

Early 2002 we were taken over by a US company, Flextronics. After two to three months they initiated a pay freeze. They were doing an overhaul because they said they weren't making any money. People were pissed off over the pay freeze but then the company said they were cancelling the Christmas bonus, now it was only around euro 25 but it was like kicking a dog when he's down. The general mood was bad in the job. We weren't unionised so talk of setting up a union began. Word got to management about this and they came to us with the idea of a forum. Now this was to be elected and would meet and discuss with management weekly on any grievances or problems. They would then be sorted by the management. It only lasted six months because we received nothing from them. Any problems were put off, put back, nothing was done. So we pulled out, it was pointless. So the conditions in the job were bad, the atmosphere was terrible - lads didn't want to go to work.

So how did you go about unionising the job?

We got on to the local branch of SIPTU and called a meeting of all the workers in the company. We did this by word of mouth around the job.

As I said earlier there was intimidation and a number of the people were wary. Dell Computers is reliant on us and the feeling was if we were unionised Dell wouldn't deal with us and jobs would be lost. Some felt Dell might pull out leaving thousands of people unemployed and it would be our fault. This was what the management was putting around. So at the first meeting to discuss setting up the union there were only 22 workers. To continue the intimidation some members of management even came to the meeting.

How did you deal with the intimidation?

We went around the job and explained why we needed a union. I remember meetings sometimes at 2am in the morning because there'd be no management around. Wherever and whenever we'd have meetings and sign people up. We knew we needed organisation and we'd get that in a union. We had assumed that we were getting the social partnership pay rises but it turned out that we weren't and that we were owed a 17% increase on our basic wage!

How did Flextronics respond to your wage claim?

We went to the management and told them what they owed us. They said no way there was no money available. They went to the Labour Court and pleaded inability to pay but that was thrown out. After that they came with a retrospective lump sum offer of around 400.

We took it but this proved to us that we could get money out of them. We continued negotiating and they offered a 3.5% increase. They said at the meeting that there would be "no double digit rises in this company." They came back with an offer of 2% on our basic. This was taken to the workers and was rejected out of hand in a ballot. The same day we balloted for industrial action.

What was the workforce's response?

Out of 180 workers only 2 voted against industrial action. So we went to management and served strike notice.

We knew that the relationship between Dell and Flextronics was our trump card. If we were out on strike it would make Dell grind to a halt because they rely on us for parts.

To give you an idea of how much this would cost Dell, at the time Dell had nine lines operating and if one of the lines goes down for an hour it costs them $25,000. So if we were out on strike it would cost them millions, literally.

We were due to go out on strike on a Monday, on the Friday management came to us with a revised offer of 10% on our basic and full trade union recognition. The mood was to accept but a lot of the lads including myself felt we had them by the balls and maybe could've gotten more.

For me the 10% was good but more important was the full union recognition. Two years ago we had 22 union members - now out of 320 workers we have roughly 280 members in the union. We couldn't have achieved anything without getting organised into the union.

In September we're going to negotiate for a 10% increase in our P60 and a 3.5% increase on our basic for 2003. This would close off the first phase of what we are owed for "Sustaining Progress". Hopefully we won't have to go through so much to get the second because I'm damn sure we won't let them.

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