In Georgia, so-called “right-to-work” laws make it hard for unions to organize and retain members, particularly when language barriers in the workplace already present challenges. Despite such obstacles, though, SMART Local 85 (Atlanta, Ga.) has made big inroads at Price Industries, where approximately 70% of the workforce speaks Vietnamese as a first language.

“A new approach to internal organizing has been key to this success,” said SMART Director of Production Workers Dave Goodspeed.

“We were able to hire — from our own ranks — a Vietnamese speaker, Donson Ha,” Goodspeed explained, “and he’s a firecracker.”

Anti-union right-to-work laws allow members to opt out of paying union dues, making the inability to communicate effectively to an entire workforce potentially devastating to both workers and local unions. That was especially true at Price in Georgia: Local 85 was unable to convey the union difference and best represent its members, and workers were cautious about seeking representation from those they literally couldn’t understand.

“For a long time, Price Industries has been a hard nut to crack in terms of signing new members, primarily because Price has made a practice of hiring so many different nationalities,” Goodspeed said.

“They have people who speak English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Cambodian, and the largest population of workers down there — probably 50% — are Vietnamese,” added SMART International Production Organizer Sharon Walker.

Until recently, only around 20–25% of Price workers had signed up with the union, Walker said, and the lack of representation had material consequences. One example: The company would post mandatory overtime notices to its bulletin boards in English exclusively, making it difficult for non-English-speaking workers who may have missed the announcement from their shop lead to know what was required of them. And in the event that a worker who didn’t speak English faced discipline, they often didn’t know how to go to their union for help.

“I didn’t know about unions until I met Sharon, and she explained to me … what a union is,” said Vietnamese-speaking Shop Steward Rich Manh Bui.

“Before, nobody represented them, and that’s why Vietnamese [workers] didn’t know anything about a union,” added fellow Shop Steward Hai Ngo. “Even when they joined a union, and they had a problem, they don’t know where they’re going — they don’t know who they’ve got to ask.”

Donson Ha

That’s where Ha and shop stewards like Bui and Ngo entered the equation. Local 85 and SMART International representatives realized they had to do more to gain the trust of the Price workforce, and in the spirit of true trade unionism, they looked to the rank-and-file for leadership. Ha, a 10-year Local 85 member, came from the building trades side of the industry — but after seeing the number of Vietnamese workers in production, especially older workers, he was motivated to change job titles.

Since Local 85 hired Ha as a subsidized production organizer, the percentage of organized workers has approximately doubled.

“I’m very happy to organize, to stand up for Vietnamese people, because they didn’t understand the union; they don’t speak English, and they didn’t know how strong it is to be a union member,” said Ha. “My job is to help them understand how it works, how the union helps people.”

SMART Production Department leaders from across the United States and Canada met in Indianapolis at the end of August for the first-ever Production Institute training. The week-long class, part of a three-year program tailored to production locals, featured sessions on bargaining, labor law, grievance handling, labor history and more — all geared towards helping local union leaders become the best advocates they can be for SMART members.

“The class is really an orientation to why we do what we do, and why they do what they do, and how it fits into this larger picture,” said SMART Director of Education Sam White. “[For example], production leaders need specific types of grievance handling or steward training for the kind of representation work that they do.”

“Things work differently in production shops,” added SMART International Organizer Sharon Walker. “Each one of our production shops has a separate contract, unlike the building trades side, where you might have one contract in the entire local. We file grievances more than they do — it’s just a totally different world.”

A key goal of the Production Institute training was to bring leaders from disparate areas and contexts into the same room, demonstrating both commonalities and differences — and illustrating lessons that can be learned from one another.

“What we’re finding out is that a lot of us are dealing with the same issues in different places, but we also are finding out that some of our situations are isolated based on area, demographics or the workforce as a whole,” said Local 85 (Atlanta, Georgia) Business Agent Schuyler Worthey.

One example: Local unions in states and provinces that are relatively labor-friendly can go on offense, organizing new shops in order to strengthen our union. But for locals in right-to-work states, explained Local 110 (Louisville, Kentucky) Organizer and Recording Secretary Jeremy Waugh, the calculus changes.

“We need to internally organize our production shops so that we can retain the membership and get people to sign up,” he said.

While the differences between locals, areas and countries are important and noteworthy, White said, the training also focused on local unions’ role in the shared history of the labor movement. We can learn from the victories and setbacks of the past — and take comfort in the fact that we are all part of a long struggle for workers’ rights.

Production leaders left the training ready to continue that movement.

“There’s an old adage about taking time to sit down once in awhile and sharpen your axe to be effective, and I think that’s what we’re doing: We’re honing our skills, and we’re going to bring that back to our home locals and really put them into action,” said Local 30 (Toronto, Ontario) Business Representative Joseph Popadynetz. “When you put all those leaders in the same room and you start to share ideas and stories, that’s a bonus effect. It’s just incredible.”