US Rep. Paul Ryan recently addressed the Texas Republican party state convention in Fort Worth. He told the crowd that the American free enterprise system had done more to help the poor than government assistance programs and that these programs have become more of a hammock than a safety net allowing able-bodied people to relax instead of working hard.
The sad fact, however, is that many hard working Americans are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other health and human service programs because their employers refuse to pay a living wage and provide little or no health care benefits. For example, Walmart encouraged employees who can’t afford the company’s health care plan to apply for government programs and that’s what workers at C&M Conveyor in Mitchell, Indiana were told when they complained about low wages and unaffordable health care.
“These are hard working people who build complex, specialized conveyor systems used in box and paper factories throughout the US,” said United Steelworkers organizer Robin Rich about the C&M workers. “But some of them have had to turn to food stamps and Medicaid because their employer doesn’t provide a decent wage.”
Rich was speaking at a support rally in Austin, Texas outside the downtown offices of Blue Sage Capital, a $270 million private equity firm that purchased C&M in 2006. The support rally was called to urge Blue Sage to make C&M management stop stalling and negotiate a fair contract with its unionized workforce, who voted overwhelming in July 2011 to join USW and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
“These workers simply want a decent wage, an affordable health care plan, and some respect on the job” Rich said. “Forty percent of the C&M workers don’t have any health care coverage because the premium is too high. Those who can afford it must pay a $10,000 deductible for family coverage, which means that some go without treatment because they can’t afford the deductible.”
Randy Smith, a C&M worker, told the Austin rally that he has worked at C&M for 12 years and still doesn’t make $12 an hour.
More than one-third of C&M workers earn less than $10 an hour, half of the workforce make less than $11.75 per hour, and more the two-thirds make less than $12.65 an hour, well below the average wage for similar work in southern Indiana where Mitchell is located.
“The low wages and unaffordable health care at C&M add up to poverty and serious health challenges for many hard working C&M employees,” Rich said
Rich and Smith were joined at the Austin rally by local members of USW, the Texas AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Occupy Austin, the Texas Fair Trade Coalition, and the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186.
The delegation hand delivered a letter signed by Austin supporters of C&M workers to Blue Sage founder Jim McBride urging him to end the stalling tactics and bargain seriously with its workers. McBride is also Blue Sage’s representative on the C&M board.
“The company has been stalling rather than negotiating, hoping that the workers will get discouraged and abandon the union,” Rich said. “It’s a classic union busting tactic. They lost the first round when the workers voted to unionize. They’re hoping that by stalling they can win the next round.”
USW filed an unfair labor practice charge against C&M for its delaying tactics. ”Workers voted for a union in July and the union gave the company a comprehensive wage health insurance proposal in September.” Rich said. “The company waited until April before it responded to the health care proposal and May before it responded to the wage proposal.”
“That’s what happens all too often when workers vote for a union,” Rich added. “Fifty-two percent of all newly organized workplaces do not reach an agreement within one year.”
C&M workers voted in May by a 9 to 1 margin to authorize a strike if the company continues to stall rather than bargain. “The workers have drawn a line in the sand and said we’ll strike unless the company gets serious about bargaining,” Rich said. “We just want to make sure that Jim McBride gets that message and knows how serious we are.”