Maybe it's bad luck to hold a union election on Friday the 13th, though the gravediggers at Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary don't seem like an overly superstitious bunch. On that Friday, the mechanics, welders and interment specialists at Rose Hills voted 35 to 23 to join the Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union, SEIU Local 265, according to an organizer for the union.
But the road to unionization was not without its share of scares for the gravediggers, who allege that the management at L.A.’s largest cemetery was trying to intimidate them.
"These guys, SCI, they're really good at scaring people," a man leaning on a shovel beside a grave marker told me several days before the vote.
Service Corporation International, or SCI, is America's biggest undertaker, a company Bloomberg labeled "Death, Inc." At 1,400 acres, Rose Hills, located in Whittier, is the largest of the 470 cemeteries the conglomerate owns, the largest in North America — and likely the busiest. Rose Hills buried nearly 7,000 people last year, according to staff — and that doesn’t include the cremations or the cremation niches in several mortuaries on site. SCI also owns 1,502 funeral homes.
“It’s the Walmart of the cemetery business,” said John Martin, a union rep with the Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union, SEIU Local 265, which is based in Oakland. The union sought to represent the 58 mechanics, welders and gravediggers at the cemetery.
On a warm afternoon a few days before the union election, I met with a few gravediggers at the cemetery lawn — a view as manicured as a golf course, as broad and sweeping as a Civil War battlefield.
There was a worker operating a backhoe who dumped a heap of dirt into a recently dug grave. A team of three assistants using rakes and shovels cleared away the dirt that spilled around the hole. A fifth man tamped the soft earth down with a flat-headed machine that the men call a "whacker." They wore gray uniforms with their names stitched onto the breast pocket.
There is more to a grave than digging a hole, they say.
A grave needs a frame built inside for support; it must be properly measured and dug wide enough to fit the cables and running boards used for lowering the deceased. A vault must be built to support the casket during the service, and a putting green–like cover draped over to camouflage the dig.
During the winter months, when the death rate peaks, they bury as many as 40 caskets a day.
With the vote only days away, the workplace had the atmosphere of a surveillance state. White vans circled the area. "The people in the white vans are all supervisors," said one of the diggers, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation. "They watch us. They drive around. Lots of stuff has gone on."
Representatives from SCI and Rose Hills did not respond to L.A. Weekly's requests for comment.
Every morning before the start of a shift, in the lead-up to the election, the men said they had to attend meetings led by a labor consultant hired by the company. The consultant mostly disparaged Local 265 and said things to turn the younger workers, like telling them the company will freeze all promotions if the union comes in. As the election neared, the meetings were held twice a day.
Even out in the field, the men say, the company was keeping tabs on them. A tall guy in a bright yellow construction vest stood observing the backhoe and the shoveling and raking. He was one of the subcontractors who cut the grass. The company told the workers to train them, a kind of threat incarnate that one day they could be replaced by them.
On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board certified the results of a union election of 58 workers at Rose Hills. Most of the men who voted are the interment specialists, a category that breaks down into numerous subspecialties with colorful names like diggers, swampers, trailers, markers, framers and peelers.
Most cemetery workers in L.A. are nonunion, according to Martin of Local 265. Since the company was informed of the union election, workers said management went with a carrot-and-stick approach to win a no vote. Since September, the starting wage has increased from $13 to $14.50. The workers also were given new work boots and jackets. Management scheduled an employee BBQ for the day before the vote.
Rose Hills sent letters to the workers’ homes on Oct. 6. One of the workers gave L.A. Weekly a copy of the letter, which reads: “We know it is unusual to reach out to you like this, but we wanted to get you this letter to review with your family in the privacy of your own home because of the significant impact the union election could have on all of you.”
“We can … assure you that we believe the best way to address any issues is one that does not involve having Local 265 come between us.”
Norman Barrios is a backhoe operator who has worked at Rose Hills for 12 years. “They sent that letter to my house,” he said. “It kind of threw off my wife. Families depend on that paycheck, and the workers got scared.”
Barrios, 43, has three kids and a mortgage. He said the pay is too low and the work too exhausting to retain employees. He also said that the crew is short-staffed and that management overworks those who stick it out. The company has made a habit of requiring staff to come in and work on their days off.
“We’re fighting for recognition," Barrios said. "You’ve got people in upper management getting big bonuses. We feel like we’re chopped liver. It’s not all about money, it’s respect and recognition. They know we’re understaffed and they won’t do nothing to hire people.”
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When the workers brought their concerns to management, Barrios said, they were called burros, or donkeys. "That’s what really got people upset."
One of the gravediggers I met at Rose Hills confirmed the name-calling. "I guess that's how they view us. It's degrading," he said.
At the top of Rose Hills, the view extends an astounding distance — to downtown L.A. and Pico Rivera, El Monte, Montebello and Whittier. Some of the workers have family buried in the cemetery.
One worker punched a spade into the ground and cleared the grass away from a grave marker. “We would like to be treated with the same dignity and respect that we give to the families that we serve,” he says.