They work 60-70 hours a week. They say they are paid a monthly salary that averages out to about $10 an hour because there is no overtime pay. They receive no benefits. That means no health insurance, and no vacation, and only one paid holiday per year – Thanksgiving. They are the drivers who work for Vincent Trucking, and its alter-ego, Metro Trucking. The company delivers noodles and chicken, broccoli and rice, and every type of supply to Asian restaurants throughout the Midwest. Vincent Trucking was started in 2002 by Vincent Lin.
Felix, 27 years old, is one of those drivers. (He asked that his last name not be published.) He says he has worked for the company for five years. His regular route takes him from the company’s headquarters in New Hope to Morris, Fergus Falls, Perham, and Detroit Lakes in Minnesota. He regularly puts in 14-hour days.
Looking for a better life, and hoping to improve his working conditions, Felix was one of the employees who approached United Food and Commercial Workers Local (UFCW) #789 about forming a union. In August 2007, an election was held and workers voted unanimously to form a union.
Doug Mork, Organizing Director for Local #789, says that despite the unanimous vote, workers have met with resistance from Lin at every turn. On the very day of the election, workers were not allowed to vote inside the building. Instead, federal government officials were forced to conduct the election from their car.
At that point, Lin created Metro Trucking, and told the drivers that he didn’t want to deal with the union, that he was closing down Vincent Trucking, and proceeded to lay off all of the ten workers. The workers then had to re-apply for their jobs.
Mork says Vincent and Metro are one and the same company, listing the same employees for each company. Felix says his truck reads Vincent Trucking. Vincent Lin indicated they were one and the same.
After four of the ten workers were fired without reason between September 2007 and January 2008, UFCW filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that the workers were fired for their union activity.
Mork says that the NLRB ruled in favor of UFCW, and issued a complaint against the company on all four of the terminations, and on the creation of the “alter-ego” corporation, and on its failure to bargain in good faith. The NLRB scheduled a trial in front of an Administrative Law Judge.
About two weeks before the trial, the NLRB tried to get a settlement with the help of the ALJ. In the spring of 2008, the day before the trial, the company agreed to settle the case. That settlement gave the four workers 50% of their back pay; two of the four fired drivers went back to work (the other two had found other jobs); the company agreed to bargain in good faith; and the bargaining period was extended out to one year from the settlement.
UFCW has been at the negotiating table with Vincent/Metro since January 2008, before the formal settlement. Mork says, “Toward the end of March they gave us a last, best, and final offer.” Workers voted against that offer which amounted to the conditions they have been working with.
The union brought in the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services (FMCS), an agency created to facilitate mediation. When contacted by FMCS, the company was unwilling to move in its proposal. At that point UFCW called a two-day strike that was held in July.
The Workers Interfaith Network (WIN) joined the workers during the strike. Matt Gladue, executive director of WIN, says, “We encouraged our members to come out and stand in solidarity with the workers during the strike.”
Mork says, “The idea was to send a message, but not to shut down the company. We don’t want the company out of business- we just want them to treat the workers right.”
After the strike, when the drivers told the employer they would come back to work, Lin hired replacement workers. None of the new workers lasted in the job. As each of them quit, the original workers were re-hired, with every one of them now back at work.
After a break in negotiations around the time of the strike, the union and the employer continue to meet, hoping to make some progress, still coming to the negotiating table every two weeks or so. Last week, the employer bumped up its offer to $11 an hour, “with a minimal concept of seniority, “ according to Mork. He says that the employer called it “a very generous offer.”
Mork says that the drivers have filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in an attempt to put a stop to the illegal activities of the employer. He says the company continues to send out trucks that are thousands of pounds overweight. Drivers are told to avoid the highways with weigh stations. Drivers are frequently pulled over by the State Patrol for overweight violations, and receive a ticket.
When owner Vincent Lin was contacted by phone to discuss the issues, he answered only one question, telling when the company was founded, then said he needed to talk to his attorney before giving any more information. He referred a second call to his attorney, Henry To. To said he preferred to make “no comment at this point.”
As negotiations drag on, and no settlement is in sight, Mork says, “Our position has been that it is a sweatshop for truck drivers.”
Meanwhile, Felix and the other drivers hang in there, hoping for a better deal, looking for a way to pay the bills. Felix says, “I really like my job…I really want to be union.”
Mary Thoemke, a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a freelance writer for the Daily Planet.