Left-wing groups assist Alabama Teamsters

The Teamsters union and New Era Cap Co. have reached a deal at the company's 118-worker Mobile distribution center, both sides confirmed, although they released no details. "We've got a contract," said Jim Gookins, business agent for Teamsters Local 991, which represents union members in the Mobile area.

This would be the first contract for the Teamsters at the Crichton warehouse, where workers voted 57-53 on July 12 for union representation. Conflicts over unionization are routine. But accusations of racial discrimination, along with the high-profile nature of New Era's products, pushed the Mobile dispute to national prominence among groups that advocate for civil rights and worker rights.

The agreement arrived at a deadline set by the union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after which they promised to pressure Major League Baseball to take action against New Era. Making caps for baseball is the biggest business for privately-held New Era. The company, based in Buffalo, N.Y., has $340 million in annual sales.

The agreement was reached at 2:30 a.m. Monday, Gookins said. He said negotiations began making progress with a session last Thursday running from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and continuing over the weekend.

"We have reached an agreement with the Teamsters," New Era spokeswoman Dana Marciniak wrote in an e-mail. "However, both parties agreed that details of that agreement will be discussed after a joint press release is distributed this week."

Gookins said the contract has yet to be ratified by workers. He said that vote should come by the end of next week.

The Teamsters had said they had three key issues. They were seeking higher wages for workers at the factory; they were trying to get the company to modify an attendance system that pro-union workers said was punitive and unfairly run; and they were trying to get workers rehired that the Teamsters said were fired for pro-union sympathies.

The company has claimed wages are fair, that the attendance policy is identical to one at the company's unionized plant in Derby, N.Y., and that workers were fired because of changes in work done at the plant northeast of Moffett Road and Interstate 65.

New Era was also under fire from college students who push for better working conditions at plants making college-logo apparel. The University of Wisconsin-Madison cut off its license to the company, and other schools have moved in that direction.

A contract could help ease those concerns at least partially, said Larry Root, a professor at the University of Michigan. Root is the head of a university committee that monitors labor conditions. The school is among several that have written to New Era with concerns.

"If the Teamsters felt the concerns that they had earlier were no longer a concern, that would be an important piece of information for us," Root said.

Andrew Cannon, a sophomore at the University of Southern Mississippi, was among students from different schools who met with workers last month. Cannon, a Mobilian who graduated from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, said that students' concerns would be eased if the union was happy

"The contract the Teamsters had made out was the one we wanted," Cannon said.

New Era also has a 380-worker Jackson plant and a 410-worker Demopolis plant.


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