Hairdresser Barbara Bartel charges that when she tried to organize the workers in the Silver Spring beauty shop where she worked, her employers fired her.
Bartel packed up her blow dryer and left Headlines, the small, eight-employe shop.
This week, her attorney filed an unfair labor practices charge on her behalf with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Headlines of violating federal labor law by discharging Bartel "because of her union activities."
Bartel said she began trying to form a union shop because she believed Headlines employes should have "a seniority system, better working conditions, a grievance procedure and sick pay."
The employes' initial enthusiasm at the prospect of increased benefits and job security turned to fear, however, when the workers discussed having to tell the shop owners of their intention to organize, Bartel said.
"After my employers found out who was instigating the idea, the atmosphere in the shop was totally different. None (of the employers) would speak to me. The hostility was so obvious, and it was caused by the fear that if we tried to organize we would lose our jobs," said Bartel, who worked at Headlines seven months.
Another hairdresser at Headlines, who asked not to be named, said: "There's so much fear" (in the shop.) The owners feel they've rooted out the problem by firing her. It proves that the more self-assertive you are, the higher your self-esteem, the less desirable you are as an employe in this shop and most other shops."
The woman employe voiced some strong complaints about the working conditions in her profession and, specifically, at Headlines, She said the women who shampoo hair have developed allergies to chemicals as well as skin conditions caused by having their hands constantly immersed in cold water.
"As their hands are bleeding from allergies, they say, 'I do want more rights but I'm afraid' or 'I want my rights but I don't want to do anything to hurt the boss.' Those are statements made strictly out of fear, nothing more," said the woman employe.
Bartel said her attempts to form a union were prompted by the failure of her employers to provide what she considered even meager benefits, such as an affordable health insurance plan, a grievance procedure and job security. She said Headlines currently offers a health plan at a cost to employes of approximately $60 per month, an amount she and others say they cannot afford to pay.
She believe hairdressers who had built up seniority at Headlines should receive more than the 50 percent commission given the operators who do not have seniority. She said raises should be agreed upon in advance, and should not be "arbitrary, and few and far between," according to the mood of the employers.
The cost of a shampoo, haircut and blow dry is $18 when done by most Headlines hairdressers, according to one employe. Newer employes usually take home $150 a week, or a little less, she said.
Lisa O'Leary-Young, an AFL-CIO representative with whom Bartel is working, said the circumstances at Headlines, as well as Bartel's dismissal, are not uncommon. She says beauticians are traditionally not unionized, as are barbers, and therefore suffer discrimination from all quarters.
The owners of Headlines have refused to comment except through their attorney, Herb Horowitz. He said Bartel was dismissed because she did not bring enough money to the business.
"It cost them more to keep her than she brought in," Horowitz said. "Beauty operators have to have a following, and her following just didn't follow. People didn't come back."
Bartel said that when the employes first discussed the idea of a union with their employers, the shop owners were agreeable. But one, Diane Mathis, confronted Bartel later, saying it was not possible to unionize beauticians.
"So Lisa (O'Leary-Young) and I pulled the other hairdressers together secretly. Lisa wanted to draw up a contract. The other employes seemed enthusiastic but they wanted to have another meeting without a union organizer," said Bartel.
The enthusiasm soon turned to fear, however, although "I tried to explain to them that just because you stand up for yourself doesn't mean you are against anyone else," Bartel said. A short time later, she added, word leaked out that she was the main organizer, and she was fired.
"They said they would have to let me go because I wasn't making enough money, that I wasn't bringing in enough customers. They said I didn't fit in, that I didn't care about hair," said Bartel.
Bartel said she then asked the shop owners directly if they were firing her because of union activity, an action that is illegal. Their response was very emotional, she said.
"They said hairdressers couldn't be organized. One of the owners said 'Why don't you go work in a factory and become Norma Rae?'" -- a reference to the title role in the movie "Norma Rae." The movie was based on the life story of Crystal Lee Jordan, the woman who began the fight to unionize the J. P. Stevens factory in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.
Bartel conceded that she might not have consistently brought into the shop the amount of money her employers required. She said she was expected to make $300 per week, of which she got half. O'Leary-Young points out that maintaining a steady $300-a-week flow is no easy task in a shop, such as Headlines, that does no advertising and has no "walk-in business" from customers off the street.
Bartel said before her firing, she was unaware she was "on probation."
"I was never told I had a certain amount of time to establish a clientele. If the owners were dissatisfied with my work, it didn't come to my attention until the day I was fired," Bartel said.
O'Leary-Young, who said she is now working to organize a city-wide chain of beauty shops, believes the unionization of hairdressers will be an uphill battle because most businesses are too small to merit the attention of federal mediators. She said that a service industry must gross at least $500,000 a year and have some effect on interstate commerce before the National Labor Relations Board will supervise a vote by employes on the question of unionization.
O'Leary-Young added that the small size of most beauty shops makes them more difficult to unionize because of the close personal contacts with employes maintained and often cultivated by employers.
"The small shops run on the idea that 'we all work together, that our boss loves us.' And these people really want to believe this," O'Leary-Young observed."But they're never going to get off the bottom of the heap if they don't look out for themselves and for their benefits."
Bartel agreed, recalling that after a meeting of owners and employes at her shop, "I was told (by other employes) that I was radical, hostile and negative . . . and that if I had been there as long as they had, I would love everyone as they did and not want to make so much trouble."
Bartel's attorney said that if the National Labor Relations Board finds the shop violated the right of its employes to organize a union, it will have to post a sign saying so on the premises. The owners might also be required to award Bartel some back pay, or to offer Bartel her old job again.
Bartel had applied for unemployment benefits. She is divorced and has two children. If one of her children got really sick, she says, she'd be forced to turn to "the state." That means welfare.