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Students claim bias at New Era

Buffalo-based New Era Cap Co. is the target of widespread student demonstrations stemming from a labor dispute at its plant in Mobile, Ala., the site of a contentious union negotiation.

Student demonstrations on about 40 campuses are expected this week, the company said, including one planned today at the University at Buffalo. The protests follow demonstrations on Nov. 2-3 at New Era retail stores, including one in Buffalo.

The Teamsters union accuses New Era of discriminating against African-American workers at its distribution center in Mobile by passing them over for promotion.

The company denied that and said earlier discrimination charges were ruled without merit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

United Students Against Sweatshops is organizing the protest at the UB's North Campus in Amherst today. The group calls for the university to adhere to its code of conduct regarding suppliers, student organizer Joanna Boron said.

The university requires suppliers to respect labor rights, "but there's too many loopholes," Boron said. A worker from Alabama will speak at the rally, she said.

New Era representative Dana Marciniak said, "The (student) organization has great stature -- I wish they'd do their homework."

New Era supplies team-logo head wear for UB and other colleges. It also supplies on-field caps for Major League Baseball and for teams in other pro sports. It has about 900 workers in Alabama in Mobile, Jackson and Demopolis.

Its Western New York presence includes the corporate headquarters in downtown Buffalo with 285 jobs, plus a union-represented factory in Derby.

Teamsters Local 991 in Mobile accused the company of bullying workers against joining the union, which won election to represent the site's 111 workers in July.

"Management ran a systematic intimidation campaign," Local 991 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Gookins said in a statement.

The campaign grew out of resentment at discrimination that has led to a nearly all-white management staff at Mobile, the union said. All but one of the more than 20 administrative and managerial workers is white, according to the Teamsters.

In response, New Era released employment numbers saying of its 20 managerial, professional technical and administrative workers at Mobile, 14 are white and 6 are non-white. Throughout its three Alabama plants the ratio is 39 white and 23 non-white.

"We wanted to get our facts out there," Marciniak said. The company contends the charges are aimed to pressure the company in bargaining. Talks have yet to reach agreement on a labor contract at Mobile.

Two claims of race discrimination there, the most recent in 2005, were looked into and dropped for lack of merit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the company said.

New Era Cap is a member of the Fair Labor Association, an industry group whose code of conduct forbids discrimination. An independent audit at Mobile in September didn't find evidence of discrimination, the company said.

On Nov. 2-3 members of the Teamsters union and labor groups held protests at the company's retail outlets, including one in Buffalo. Two people demonstrated outside the Buffalo store at the headquarters on Delaware Avenue, the company said. The other locations are in Atlanta, New York City, Toronto and London.


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