8/8/07

PA strikers enjoy taunting scabs

After marching the picket line for hours in the sticky heat, Diane Ferrentino perked up and smiled as she walked toward the mouth of Tama Manufacturing's driveway. It was 2:30 p.m. and roughly 20 workers, including some union members who crossed the picket line, would soon be driving out of the Lehigh County, NJ plant. "This is the best part of the day," said Ferrentino, a seamer who has worked at Tama for four years.

As the cars pulled out, the union workers held their thumbs down and chanted "scabs" and other put-downs. One woman wore toy rats snared in rat traps around her neck to represent the "scabs" working inside, including their former union vice president, she said.

Most exiting workers ignored the jeering crowd. But one woman revved her SUV to make a loud exit. A man held his pay stub up to his window while driving past the group, prompting one of the picketers to shout at him "We're earning more than you just standing out here." A security guard up the driveway recorded everything on a video camera.

It was one of the more dramatic scenes to play out on an otherwise long, dull day on the line.

About 140 garment workers represented by Unite Here are now in their eighth week of a strike to demand better wages and benefits from Tama Manufacturing. The Hanover Township company makes women's clothing sold under the Alfred Dunner label and has a contract to make military uniforms.

Tama Manufacturing owner Mark Fogelman, through a receptionist, declined to comment Tuesday.

The union members on strike feel a sense of solidarity and camaraderie, but the weeks walking the picket line through heat and rain and going without a paycheck are taking a toll.

They're proud of their stamina. Only a handful of union members have crossed the line, and the Tama workers are recognized and respected by other unions throughout the Valley. But they can't help but wonder if the strike will end with satisfactory terms. And they worry about their employment prospects, since many have been in the garment industry for decades and most garment shops have shut down or moved overseas where labor is cheaper.

The average Tama worker earns about $18,000 a year, according to the union.

Ellen Schaller of Northampton has worked at Tama as a seamer for 21 years. She's been looking at teacher's aide positions or hospital work, but finds herself torn.

"I don't know what to do," she said. "I don't want to let the girls down by getting a new job and walking off the line. But I don't know how long we can stay out here."

Outside Tama, the workers take turns walking the line along Race Street and resting in lawn chairs in the shade. They use humor to pass the time, calling it Tama Beach because they are all so tan.

"I thought I'd really hate it, but I'm enjoying it," said Joanne Donovan, a fabric spreader who has worked at Tama for seven years. "I know more people from the factory now than I ever knew before."

Asked how she was doing financially, Donovan replied: "I don't go out as much and I buy cheaper beer to cut corners. I used to get Coors or Michelob, but now I get Keystone Light. It tastes just like Coors, but it's cheaper."

Some of her colleagues are having a tougher time.

Joyce Camps of Slatington has worked at Tama since 1989 as a sewing machine operator. She's been in the garment industry for 31 years, and she's borrowing money from her son, who she said is in the Army serving in Afghanistan.

"The toughest thing is being out here when I'd rather be in there working," she said.

She had a job offer to deliver toys to vending machines, but passed it up because she worries about driving in the winter when roads are bad.

"It's not something I'd enjoy doing," Camps said. "I just like sewing."

The union and Tama negotiated for about two hours Tuesday. They plan to meet again in coming weeks, according to Unite Here organizer Gail Meyer and Martin Sobol, an attorney representing the company.

Sitting in a chair in the shade outside Tama on Friday, Ramona Acevedo remained optimistic for a happy ending. The Allentown resident has worked at Tama for 20 years as a seamer.

"We have to stick together to see it through," she said. "I'd like to go back because we were happy working for Tama at one time."

(mcall.com)

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