Visually impaired unionists fight layoffs, for safety

By Maggie Trowe
November 23, 2020

CINCINNATI — Teamsters-organized workers at the factory run by the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired here are fighting back against layoffs, wage cuts and unsafe working conditions. Two-thirds of these 65 workers, members of Teamsters Local 100, are blind or visually impaired. They slit tape, produce exit signs and craft and exam paper, and assemble kitchen gadgets. Management of the nonprofit outfit imposed a COVID-related shutdown in April.

“We will recall laid-off employees as business needs warrant based first on job function and then by seniority,” they wrote laid-off workers. “Prior to recalling laid-off employees to regular job classifications, additional temporary transfers may be made available based on business needs.”

“They wanted to retain people who were sighted, but those people are lower seniority. The employees that were blind have the most seniority,” Dorian Stone, a union representative for Teamsters Local 100, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Management brought a few workers back later in April and more in August, ignoring seniority, Dave Perry, a production worker at the factory, told the Militant. “They cut some workers’ pay in half,” he said. “Managers engaged in production work, a violation of our union contract. They also hired workers from a temporary agency who are not blind and paid them less than the unionized workers.”

During the shutdown management rearranged machines so there is no longer a physical barrier to keep workers out of the danger zone where cranes move huge tape rolls to slitting machines. They also recently told the blind workers they wouldn’t help them cross the busy street in front of the plant, claiming this will help blind workers live more independently.

“About 25 workers signed a petition against these violations and presented it to management,” Perry said. Workers also filed grievances against management doing production jobs and hiring temps, and for ending inadequate social distancing because machines were set too close together. This resistance got results.

All but 15 of the union workers are back now. The company is taking workers’ temperatures as they enter. They’re employing fewer from agencies.

“But we still have issues,” Perry said. “We want everyone back. Our union steward is still on layoff and isn’t allowed on company property to represent us. The company won’t let business agent Dorian Stone, or local President Bill Davis, on company property either.”

Having a union is important to him. “I’ve heard workers here in the 1980s had to fight like crazy to bring in the union,” Perry said, “and a lot of people lost their jobs.”

“Only 30% of blind people are able to find work they can do,” Perry said. “We want to be productive, earn a living and be treated with respect.”