Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday July 9th, 2014, 12:52pm

WaterSaver Workers Picket For 'Fair' Contract, Protest Over Bathroom Break Policy (VIDEO)

About 25 union-represented employees at WaterSaver Faucet Co. picketed outside of the company's Chicago headquarters and main manufacturing facility before work Wednesday morning to call for a "fair contract." 

Teamsters Local 743 represents a total of 140 workers between WaterSaver's plant, 701 W. Erie St., and another facility operated by the laboratory faucet manufacturer's sister company, Guardian Equipment, located at 1140 N. North Branch St. in Chicago.

Unionized workers at WaterSaver have been working under an extension of their old labor contract, which expired last month. Contract negotiations between the union and the company have been underway for about a month and a half, said Nicholas Kreitman, Teamsters Local 743 senior union representative and staff attorney. 

That's when the union presented to the company its list of labor contract demands, some of which include a progressive disciplinary policy, a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour for all union members and paid sick days. Workers represented by Teamsters Local 743 at WaterSaver's plant currently get paid between about $11 to $16 an hour. Healthcare benefits are also a sticking point in the negotiations. 

Shortly after the union put forward its contract proposal, company officials allegedly implemented a new washroom monitoring system to keep track of the time employees spend in the bathroom. As part of that new system, the company has allegedly issued write ups to a third of the plant's workforce for "excessive bathroom use" during work hours, Kreitman said.

"Right now, you've got to write in and write out to go the the bathroom," said Rudy Dixon, who has worked at WaterSaver for 33 years. "Then when you go to the bathroom, you've got to punch in and you've got to punch out. That's not right. You can only use the bathroom twice a day."

"I'm 61 years old," he added. "How are you going to tell me how to use the bathroom?"

A WaterSaver representative could not immediately be reached for comment. 

The company's overall discipline policy is also unfair, workers and union representatives claim. 

"With the discipline policy as it is, you get three strikes and you're out the door," Kreitman said. "It doesn't matter the severity. They stack on top of each other."

Teamsters Local 743 is currently contesting the discipline of a female employee who was allegedly sent home for three days because her cellphone rang at work.

"It's a legitimate company policy to not have your cellphone with you on the shop floor, but if the enforcement of the rule is so draconian it becomes unreasonable, then we're going to contest it," Kreitman explained. "We don't have (a progressive) disciplinary policy in the contract right now. We're asking to put one in ... where you wouldn't have your first offense be a three-day suspension ... unless there was some safety concern or something that would affect the machinery."

For its part, WaterSaver wants the union to cease "harassment" of the company. 

"Except in cases where there is a significant and immediate danger to the health or safety of an employee, the union will not contact OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] or any other such regulatory agency without first notifying the company in writing of the issue and providing the company with reasonable opportunity to respond to the issue in question," according to a copy of the company's 2014 labor contract proposal dated June 20. The company cited two examples: "contacting OSHA because the air condition is not working" and "contacting NIOSH due to 'poor air quality.'"

Limiting contact between the workers' collective representative and regulatory agencies "is absolutely unlawful and in violation of the workers’ rights," Kreitman maintains.

The union has recently filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over the company's bathroom policy and its alleged violation of "concerted activity rights" of the unionized workers.

"We've been amending (the charges) as the company's illegal actions have escalated," Kreitman said, adding that WaterSaver officials last week held "captive audience" meetings with Local 743 members to present the company's contract proposals. "This captive audience meeting is a perfect example of them trying to bully our members, who might not understand their legal rights. We have a large number of people at this plant who don't speak English. They speak Spanish or Polish."

Here's more from Kreitman and the protest:

Meanwhile, the company has proposed replacing workers' annual across-the-board wage increases with performance- and merit-based pay. 

That idea does not sit well with Fred Kremnitzer, who has worked at WaterSaver for 23 years. 

"This place has been a union shop for most of its existence," he said. "The owner wants to have performance evaluations instead of the hourly wage, which we ask for all of our employees. We believe in equality in our union and everyone gets treated equal ... They want to throw that out the window."

Kreitman said the two sides plan to meet for a contract negotiation session later today. He added that workers are prepared to take a strike authorization vote down the road if progress is not made at the negotiating table. 

"We need the company to drop this bathroom discipline, because it's hanging over the heads of our members," he said. "You can't really bargain in good faith if you can just implement any policy that you want, not bargain with the union over it and then discipline a third of your plant."

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