American Sign Language interpreters struck Purple Communications Inc. on Monday in a lively show of outrage over the company’s latest unfair labor practices.
Members of ASL Interpreters United, an affiliate of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, TNG-CWA Local 39521, carried picket signs outside unionized Purple worksites in Oakland, Denver, San Diego and Tempe, Ariz., declaring the interpreters were “stronger together.”
Only a handful of union-covered workers showed up intending to work at the four sites. In some locations, strike participation was close to 100 percent.
Members made video testimonials to help explain why the battle with Purple is so important. The mother of an interpreter in San Diego made 90 tamales for the picket line participants. Supporters joined the picket lines in a steady show of public and labor support that included teachers, nurses, postal workers and truck drivers.
“I love all the strong community support,” Laurie Rivard, an ASL interpreter and union leader, said during the Oakland picketing, where horns honked throughout the day.
Anthony Brown, one of the more energetic Oakland strikers, kept in nearly constant motion, trotting along beside cars and city buses passing in front of Purple’s office along a busy downtown intersection.
It was chilly in California. In Tempe, Ariz., the thermometers were reading in the triple digits.
The Arizona picketers included three supporters from the deaf community. Local media picked up the story and the union press release was posted on social media.
Email access through the company’s servers appeared to be blocked at least temporarily at some locations, according to unconfirmed reports.
The unfair labor practice strike was a one-day protest called when the company chose to implement changes in health care benefits, without bothering to reach an agreement with union negotiators. The strike ended at 6 p.m. Monday.
Changes in terms and conditions generally must remain status quo without a union agreement, except in cases of bona fide impasse or other rare exceptions. At Purple, health care is a critical issue, because the interpreters have been forced to skip breaks in a profit-driven speedup.
The company, based in Rocklin, Calif., provides video-relay-service interpretation through the telephone network, through a program regulated and subsidized by the federal government. ASL interpreters suffer a high risk of workplace injury if they are forced to keep signing more than 20 minutes at a stretch.
That’s one of the main reasons the interpreters organized 18 months ago. The ASL unit has been in negotiations for an initial labor agreement. One of the main issues in the talks involves how much time the interpreter must spend on calls.
Monday’s strike focused on the unfair manner in which the company changed the terms of employee health coverage. The ongoing threat to on-the-job safety was a major topic of conversation as well.
“This is about safety and health care,” said Carol Day, a veteran ASL interpreter who was picketing and handing out leaflets in downtown Oakland.
Fifteen picketers started at dawn outside Purple’s San Diego worksite. The crowd nearly doubled by mid-day, as members of SEIU and other unions, students and community activists joined in. Passing drivers kept up a steady soundtrack with horns honking in solidarity.
Emmalyn Spencer, snug in her baby stroller while her mom, Susan, carried a picket sign outside the Denver worksite, was the youngest participant in the Monday street action.
Denver members arrived at 6:20 a.m. and kept up a continuous presence throughout the morning. Five Purple workers have been with us: JoLinda, Beth, Crystal, Sara and Mariah. Representatives of the Denver Guild local, Jobs With Justice and the Postal Workers helped raise the volume.
Purple-colored leaflets proved popular on the Oakland streets, along with chants about the need to put workers, customers and taxpayers ahead of profit interests.
Sara Steffens, acting secretary-treasurer of the Newspaper Guild sector of CWA, joined in at Oakland, her hometown. She recalled serving as an election observer when Purple workers organized as she wielded a plastic clapper noisemaker.
“I’ve been inspired by the workers at Purple,” she said.
Monday’s strike happened to follow announcement last week by the Federal Communications Commission that the agency plans to fine Purple $11.9 million for alleged billing fraud. The company issued a transparent denial Monday at the same time Steffens was making noise at 10th and Broadway.
“We’re not the only ones noticing that this company doesn’t seem to be playing by the rules,” she said.