On the Picket Line

Barbers defeat boss move to cut pay at army bases

By Arlene Rubinstein
November 15, 2021

“I’m glad to be back at work,” Mike Kates, a barber with 15 years at the Fort Lee U.S. Army base barbershop in central Virginia, told the Militant in a phone call Oct. 29. “After almost four months on strike, we won some things, and on the picket line we bonded together.”

The 20 barbers, members of Laborers’ International Union Public Service Employees Local 572, had struck Sheffield Barbers, a contractor hired by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, on July 4. Most of the barbers are African American or Korean American.

Sheffield bosses’ “last, best and final” offer was a 6-cent increase per haircut, even though they had recently raised prices. When the workers walked out, the bosses hired replacement workers to try to break the strike. Under the contract signed Oct. 25, the barbers at both Fort Lee and at nearby Fort Pickett Army National Guard base will make 53% of the $13.25 posted price, plus tips. If Sheffield raises prices again, the barbers cut will be adjusted to keep the same percentage. This reinstates the pay rate existing before Sheffield took over the shops.

Solidarity made a difference in the strike. “It’s not so easy on a military base, but soldiers, their families, civil service workers and the community found ways to show support. Some Nabisco workers who were also on strike stopped by our picket line,” Sonia Vasquez Luna, business manager of Local 572, told the Militant by phone. Over 1,000 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union at Nabisco had made gains in Virginia and plants in four other states in a hard-fought battle over the summer.

“We are seeing a surge in solidarity among workers,” Luna said. “Our lesson is this: Nobody in this country should be afraid to strike.”