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The un-crushable union drive at a Madison screen printing company

Workers at Crushin’ It Apparel fight to get their jobs back after the company’s owner abruptly closed up shop.
A generic brick and vinyl commercial building
Crushin’ It Apparel occupies part of a large commercial building at the corner of Voges Road and Owl Creek Drive on Madison’s southeast side.

Workers at Crushin’ It Apparel fight to get their jobs back after the company’s owner abruptly closed up shop.

By a vote of six to zero, screen printing workers at Crushin’ It Apparel on Voges Road in Madison chose last month to form a union. However, shortly after the employees initiated the unionization election, owner Jeremy Kruk began a series of layoffs that would eventually encompass all eight of his organizing screen printers and embroiderers. 

The business will remain open, but Kruk said he will now contract out much or all of his custom orders to other shops.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released the outcome of the union vote on its website November 1. Of the 11 employees eligible to participate in the election, seven cast ballots. One was void and the other six indicated support for unionizing with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) District 7 Local 802. But now, in the latest twist of a drawn-out battle over working conditions at Crushin’ It, the unionizing workers are trying to get their jobs back. 

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IUPAT will lead the negotiations for the workers as their new union representatives. IUPAT Business Representative Adam Gifford says that the layoffs did not change anything about the immediate future for the workers. IUPAT will pursue a contract, though exact timetables remain up in the air. 

The first step to securing a deal will be to get the laid-off workers reinstated. The union has filed allegations of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board against Crushin’ It, essentially arguing that Kruk shut production down to retaliate against workers. Kruk, meanwhile, claims he’s going ahead with plans to sell the company’s equipment. 

“Due to the financial strains on the business, we’ve closed up those divisions and will no longer produce them. We sold or are in process of selling all of the equipment,” Kruk told the Capital Times in a November 1 story. “This door to my life is now closed.”

Reclaiming lost jobs

Kruk tells Tone Madison that the decision to lay off staff was unrelated to the union vote and instead based on his desire to sell the equipment they operated. While he acknowledges that he posted the machines for sale publicly after the workers began organizing in August, he says that he had attempted to privately find buyers as early as June.

Gifford did not engage in hypotheticals about what the union’s next move might be if Kruk kept to his guns and followed through on selling the equipment. Instead he reiterates IUPAT’s commitment to getting the Crushin’ It employees back to work.

Kruk lamented what he saw as a concerted effort to tear down his livelihood. “Unions are professionals at destroying businesses,” he says.

“That is not accurate at all,” says Gifford. “[Crushin’ It Apparel staff] wanted a union.” Gifford stresses that workers led all organizing efforts up through the election.

Organizing 101

Organizing Crushin’ It’s screenprinters began in August when five employees from the shop walked into the south Madison offices of Worker Justice Wisconsin, a small non-profit that focuses on advocating for immigrant workers in the area.

The Crushin’ It staff who met with Worker Justice formed an organizing committee and drafted a letter asking Kruk to cool the workplace to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They also asked him for a $4 per hour pay raise, proper protective equipment, and clean bathrooms.

They submitted the letter on August 26.

Kruk threatened to fire anyone who did not take their name off of the letter by the following Monday. No one did. Kruk followed through and terminated the signatories.

Worker Justice helped the employees file a complaint with the NLRB and staged a strike that drew several dozen community members to picket alongside the Crushin’ It workers.

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Robert Christl, Program Director for Worker Justice Wisconsin, says an NLRB agent contacted the shop’s owner a few days later. The next day, Kruk invited all of Crushin’ It’s laid-off staff back to work.

The organizing committee chose to respond by pushing for a union. The NLRB scheduled a vote by mail election, and the support to unionize was unanimous. Now Kruk has let the staff go again, this time not citing attempts to organize as a reason. US labor laws prohibit employers from firing their staff for attempting to organize. However, many workplaces (Starbucks being a prominent and recent example) find other reasons to dismiss labor leaders before a union can gather momentum.

Christl reiterates that the workers will continue down the union path, meaning that they will next attempt to negotiate a contract with Kruk. Worker Justice will continue to support the workers as interpreters for those who do not speak English and in rallying community support.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Crushin’ It’s owner made several other contradictory statements during an interview with Tone Madison, centering on the claims his workers had leveled against him.

Kruk says that his workplace had three “functional” bathrooms and complains that the organizing committee’s initial request letter incorrectly described one toilet as being on the businesses’ second floor. But the workers were complaining about the cleanliness of the bathrooms, not their specific locations within the workplace.

Kruk says that a representative from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration measured the heat of his plant and that it “passed,” but he did not specify how hot the shop measured and if it was above the 80 degree mark the workers requested.

He characterizes protesters demonstrating in solidarity with his staff as an intimidating “mob.” However, he also emphasizes that he provided water to the several dozen people present. 

During our interview, Kruk also made a range of contradictory statements about pay. He sought to highlight how generously he paid his employees by pointing out that one of his highest-paid workers made $22 per hour prior to the layoffs. Later in the interview, while justifying his need to eliminate staff, he said that due to the current state of the labor market, a skilled industrial sewer could expect to make between $25 and $30 per hour. A job listing Crushin’ It posted back in April advertised a wage of between $16 and $19 per hour.

Kruk repeatedly wondered aloud during the interview why his employees would feel dissatisfied when they had access to free soda and snacks in a company refrigerator.

Kruk says he felt worker organizers targeted employees he characterized as “easily swayed,” calling it “a shame.”

Gifford pushes back on these claims, saying that Kruk had galvanized his own staff against him prior to and during the organizing. “They were not respected,” Gifford says.

In his comments to Tone Madison, Kruk repeatedly talked about his need to provide for his two children. Gifford sympathizes with the sentiment, but points out that the majority of the laid-off staff have kids and families to support too. “It shouldn’t be at the expense of other folks,” Gifford says.

There was also the issue of pay. Christl says that in the brief few months he and other Worker Justice staff have aided the Crushin’ It employees, several of the workers had struggled to get their paychecks to cash. Christl called the issue “a pervasive problem.”

​​The employees also recounted laboring in an intolerably hot environment. Management had required they work though heat waves without any kind of climate control. Staff resorted to purchasing their own portable A/C units to make work bearable. No one cleaned the bathrooms, they told Christl, rendering the facilities unusably filthy.

The workers also felt management did not do an adequate job of metering out new work orders, resulting in lulls early in the week followed by a mountain of orders on following days.

Kruk remains within his rights to sell the equipment, though the NLRB could rule that he improperly terminated their operators and demand he hire them back. Whether or not the business financials actually soured, only he knows.

“It wasn’t about the profits before,” Kruk says, implying that the unionization push somehow transformed his for-profit company into a money making venture. However, during our interview he went back on that assertion by repeatedly emphasizing how he needed the company to provide for his family. Kruk also claims that the business earned him and his wife a combined $30,000 per year, near poverty wages for a family of four.

If Kruk truly did not care about profits, you have to wonder why he would have wanted to sell the screen printing and embroidery equipment. He did not address this contradiction in our interview.

“Sick of it”

The successful unionization drive at Crushin’ It is just the latest in a surge of union drives that have taken hold both in the Madison area and the nation.

Over the past year in the Madison area, baristas at Colectivo and the Capitol Square Starbucks and Raven Software quality assurance testers have successfully secured the right to collectively bargain with their employers.

Workers across the country have recently led a surge in unionization not seen in decades. In Wisconsin, union membership rates among the workforce have taken a nosedive since 2011 when then Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans in the Legislature passed Act 10, which prohibited certain public employees from unionizing.

Legislation soon followed that made Wisconsin a so-called “right-to-work” state, meaning that workers can labor in a union shop without paying union dues.

Whether cases like Crushin’ It represent a turning of the tides remains to be seen, but Gifford says it’s time to defy trends in the labor market over the last several decades that have favored employers.

“Workers have been mistreated and workers are sick of it,” Gifford says. “And that’s what unions are for.”

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