Members of Teamster Local 657 in San Antonio have been out on strike since April at the historic Pioneer flour mill. They walked out when health care concessions were demanded by the mill’s owner CH Guenther & Sons, an international privately owned company that operates food processing plants in the US, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.
Workers at the San Antonio mill located at South Alamo and Probandt took the company’s demand for health care concessions as slap in the face that showed how little respect the company has for the dangerous work they do to create value for the company.
“We’re out here to better our lives and our families,” said Tony Diaz, who has worked 25 years at Pioneer. “I feel like the company has cheated us for years. We’re just trying to make it better.”
The Teamsters also want the company to start contributing to the union’s defined benefit pension plan, which helps provide a secure retirement for workers like those at Pioneer, and they want the company to be conscientious in addressing safety hazards at the mill where workers have been seriously hurt and even killed.
When the workers began negotiating a wage increase for the second year of their contract, the company demanded higher worker contributions to their health insurance plan. Workers who have individual coverage not individual and dependent coverage would see health care premiums rise by 20 percent. Everyone would have taken home smaller paychecks.
Most of the workers at Pioneer have only individual coverage, Local 657 business agent Paul Cruz told MySanAntonio.com. “It would impact (these workers) significantly, to the point where they could afford the premium but not afford the deductibles or co-pays,” Cruz said.
The workers also want the company to help them achieve a secure retirement. Currently, the company matches employee contributions to their 401(k) savings account up to a maximum of $925 a year. Most workers, who make about $14 an hour, can’t afford to contribute $925 a year into their 401(k) plan, so they want the company to contribute the difference between $925 and the amount that the company contributes to their 401(k)s to the Teamster’s defined benefit pension plan.
The strikers have doggedly manned the picket lines through the hottest summer in the history of Texas. They’ve received some support from other unions but would like more.
Members of the sheet metal workers joined the picket line. Staff from the National Nurses United who were on their way to McAllen, Texas to begin contract negotiations and had a four-hour layover at the San Antonio airport rented a van at the airport and joined the strikers on the picket line.
Rank-and-file members of UPS and Union Pacific have refused to cross the picket line, but management personnel from the two companies have been making the deliveries to the plant.
Teamsters have leafletted local grocery stores, food distribution companies, and restaurants to explain the issues in the strike.
Guenther tries to portray itself as a small mom and pop operation just getting by. But it told workers before the strike that it was flourishing despite the slow down in the economy. In addition to the Pioneer brand, which includes flour, pancake, and other flour products, Guenther owns the White Wing and Morrison baking ingredients brands and Peter Pan All Purpose Flour. It also supplies flour to McDonald’s in the US and Europe.
In 2005, it partnered with another food processing company to buy the Golden West Foods in the United Kingdom and now owns mills in the UK and Belgium. In 2008, it acquired Williams Foods, a company that makes dry spices.
It operates food processing plants in Denton and Duncanville, Texas, Knoxville, Tennessee, Prosperity, South Carolina, and Lenexa, Kansas.
The Teamsters have filed unfair labor practices against the company. One involved a supervisor who accidentally shot himself in the leg with a firearm while sitting in his truck near the picket line. Workers said that the supervisor had a history of making racist jokes about shooting Mexicans, which caused the workers, most of whom are Mexican-Americans, to feel threatened by the incident. The National Labor Relations Board did not agree.
Despite this and other acts of intimidation like video taping workers on the picket line, workers expressed determination to win this fight. “We really need to go back to work,” said Loretta Ramirez, who has worked at the mill for 18 years. “But we’re not going back in there until they treat us like human beings, not slaves.”