Every once in a while you come across a story that just gets more intriguing the more you dig. Yesterday, a friend of mine passed me a link about a labor dispute going on in California and it’s turning out to be a summer blockbuster. The dispute involves workers attempts to organize a union at Waltham, MA based Blu Homes’ new production plant in Vallejo, CA. What starts out as an all-too-familiar story of a profitable corporation spending millions of dollars to prevent workers from organizing a union, quickly becomes a story that is more complex and involved with every twist and turn. I’ll be honest with you right now: I’ve only read the first chapter of this story and the story is still being written. The Blu Homes Workers struggle to organize a union is one that all progressive activists need to keep and eye on, because it speaks directly to some of the tensions within the progressive community and calls upon us to make good upon our political commitments in our practices.
Blu does Green: A Quick Introduction
Blu Homes was founded in 2008 by Bill Haney, an “experienced environmental entrepreneur,” and Maura McCarthy, “a venture capitalist with a background in modular housing.” Here’s how the Public Relations folks at Blu Homes describe their company on their Facebook site:
MissionBlu’s mission is to provide American home buyers and institutions with buildings that are healthful, economical, and beautifully designed, and to do so in a convenient, predictable and customer-centered way.
Company OverviewBlu Homes, Inc. is a privately owned business that uses quality design, sustainable materials and leading technology to build beautiful and healthy homes for families, communities and businesses. The designs reflect the unique building surroundings, and contain only healthful construction materials and treat the natural world with care. Blu’s building process not only respects the land but also the client’s time and budget. Blu builds high-quality homes faster, in a controlled factory environment that minimizes waste. Blu Homes are currently being built-in the Colorado Rockies, California woodlands, Carolina coast and towns throughout New England and for corporations from coast to coast.
Pretty cool, right? And, if you think this is just PR, check out some of the pictures of their homes and their production process. Once you see the style of their homes and their serious commitment to environmental standards, you’ll understand why they are targeting hip, progressive, environmentally conscious people and you’ll get why they are doing quite well in California.
If you’re sitting there thinking that the name Bill Haney sounds familiar, congratulations, you’ve just earned some enviro street cred. In addition to being an environmental entrepreneur, Bill Haney has also written and directed several films including the two environmentally conscious, and quite good, documentaries, The Price of Sugar and The Last Mountain.
OK. So, Bill Haney is not just an “environmental entrepreneur” who is looking to cash in on the “Go Green” craze that corporations are bending over backwards two cloak themselves in. Still doubt him? Well, check out a little more of his bio:
Founder and Chairman of the non-profit World Connect, which works to improve the health and well-being of women and children in underserved and under-resourced communities worldwide. Helped start the national environmental advisory board for our federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency and serves or has served on boards for Harvard, MIT, State and Federal Governments, the World Wildlife Fund, the World Resources Institute, the NRDC and a number of private companies.
In short, Bill Haney might be considered one of the progressive, environmental elite. He might not be Bono, but he’s certainly got the experience to put him in the room.
Welcome to Vallejo & East Bay Blue-Collar Workers
By 2011, Blu Homes was selling nearly a third of its enviro-friendly, pre-fab homes in California. Earlier this year, Blu Homes decided to shut down its production facility in East Longmeadow, MA. The move meant unemployment for most of the 40 skilled laborers at the East Longmeadow location and an about-face from the company’s statements not too long ago that Western Massachusetts was the perfect place to manufacture homes. Dana Smith, a spokesperson for Blu Homes, justified the plant closure on the grounds that most of the company sales have moved to the West Coast, so it made sense to produce the homes there.
The new production facility opened up in December 2011 on the former Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, CA. Explaining why the company had decided to relocate to Vallejo, Bill Haney told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“We found this really magical combination here,” said Haney. “The notion of combining the white-collar, technology-embracing people on the Peninsula with the blue-collar workers of the East Bay is perfect for us.”
Now things get interesting. This past winter (2012), workers at the new Vallejo production plant got in touch with the Carpenters Union and expressed their interest in forming a union. The workers raised issues of “poor bathroom facilities, the lack of gender specific bathrooms, safety on the job, and the lack of any retirement plan. The overriding factor was a lack of respect from management,” according to The Price of Blu Homes, a new website supporting the union organizing drive. On April 9, 2012, the workers presented a petition to Blu Homes management signed by the majority of the workers stating that they want to be represented by the Carpenters Union. Later that day, according to The Price of Blue Homes,
The Carpenters received a letter from Maria Anastas, a lawyer with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. Ogletree Deakins (one of the most notorious anti-worker law firms in the country) would now be representing Blu Homes.
Since then, workers have been subjected to harassment, verbal threats, and firings.
Words and Deeds
So, here you have a guy, a respected environmental advocate, who moved his production facilities across the country just a few short months ago praising those “blue-collar workers of the East Bay,” turning around and hiring a union-busting law firm to try to prevent those very workers from forming a union.
What’s incredible and what got me digging more and more into this story is that Bill Haney has himself argued for the importance of unions. Check this out. During an interview about his film The Price of Sugar, a film documenting the struggles of Haitian sugar workers in the Dominican Republic, Haney said:
one of the most interesting things that took place for me was to be present at the birth of a union. It was extraordinary to see the power and vitality of a union and how desperate these workers were without it and what improvements could be ripped from the plantations owner’s hands if there was one.
Further, when Haney was talking about Massey Energy–the company at the center of mountaintop removal mining in his film, The Last Mountain–Haney said,
you know, there are miners working there who are getting a pathetic fraction of what they would have gotten even 10 years ago when they had protection with the unions. So, they’ve destroyed the unions, they’ve beaten up on the environment, they’ve violated federal health and safety standards, to what appears to be really the enrichment of a very small number of people, primarily the executives of the company.
The funny thing is that Massey Energy’s union-busting was aided by none other than Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. And it would seem that Blu Homes–that bastion of Green building–is following in lockstep with Massey Energy, one of the dirtiest coal companies in the country and owner of the notorious Big Branch Mine. On May 11, 2012, the workers at the Vallejo plant filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (there are actually several charges filed in addition to this one). The charge states:
Within the past six months, the above-named employer [Blu Homes, Inc.] has violated the Act [National Labor Relations Act] by discriminatorily and in retaliation for protected concerted activity, threatened workers, and adversely changes terms and conditions by subcontracting bargaining unit work…By the above and other acts, the above-named employer has interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed in Section 7 of the Act.
So, on the one hand, we’ve got this guy who is a champion of the environment and who has spoken publicly about the value of unions. On the other hand, that same guy turns to a union-busting law firm to prevent workers at his own production facility from unionizing!?!?! Can you see why this story got me?
Are We Still Capable of Learning Lessons from Our Movements?
I am not asking that question rhetorically. I don’t know. One of the crowing achievements of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the global justice movement was to bring together “Teamsters and Turtles.” There was a recognition by activists on both sides of the divide that the time had come for Labor and environmentalists to enter into an important and critical coalition–to work through tensions and to resist together an emerging corporate rule that targets both workers and the environment without bias. The “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition has steadily grown and has even become formalized in amazing events like the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference held most recently in Detroit this past May. We have seen this same coalition standing side-by-side in Occupy Wall Street.
This is what makes the actions of Bill Haney and Blu Homes that much more disturbing. Here you have an elite environmentalist who is openly engaged in union-busting activities in his Green manufacturing plant. Do we go back to Green Jobs, Bad Jobs? It is a question of words and deeds. In this case, Haney’s words in support of workers, in support of unions, are completely at odds with his actions. As progressives, I think it’s worth paying attention to this fight. At issue is not just Bill Haney’s actions, but ours. Will we let “one of our own” create deep tensions within a coalition that we are going to desperately need to face the twin corporate attacks against working families and our planet?
As I said at the onset, I still have a lot to learn about this story and I will continue to follow it and report back. But I think there are some simple things we can all do right away. First, check out the Blue Homes Workers Facebook page and “like” it. Second, visit The Price of Blue Homes webpage and find out more. Third, go to The Price of Blue Homes action page and send Bill Haney a little email encouraging him make good on his words.
Kevin Mahoney | Founder and Editor Zero, Raging Chicken Press.