Momentive workers vote for agreement that ends their strike

After being on strike for 105 days, Momentive workers in Waterford, New York on February 14 voted to accept a new collective bargaining agreement.

Members of IUE-CWA Local 81539, which represents production workers at the chemical plant that makes silicon products, voted 317 to 211 to ratify the new agreement; members of its sister local 81380, which represents lab workers, voted 61 to 0 to ratify.

Dennis Trainor, vice president of District 1 of the Communication Workers of America who helped negotiate the agreement, said that the new contract was a “substantial  improvement” over the company’s take-it-or-leave-it original offer that caused the strike.

Nevertheless, workers at the union office for the contract vote were in a somber mood.

The new contract provides two raises–a 2 percent raise effective in June and another 2 percent raise effective a year later–, a $2000 signing bonus, reduced health care benefits, fewer vacation days, and it eliminates retiree health care insurance for workers who retire this year and onward.

The agreement that ended the strike leaves intact the firings of 27 union members for strike-related activities.

Members of locals 81359 and 81380 went on strike when Momentive, owned by one of the world’s largest private equity companies Apollo Global Management, offered the workers a new collective bargaining agreement with a laundry list of concessions, givebacks, and takeaways.

Since Apollo bought Momentive in 2006, workers have endured a series of pay cuts and benefit reductions.

When Apollo made its latest concession laden contract offer, it left workers with no choice but to vote to authorize and carry out a strike.

During the strike, Apollo brought in replacement workers to maintain some semblance of productive activity.

During the strike, Momentive was cited by New York’s environmental protection agency for health and safety violations that endangered the surrounding communities. The union attributed the health and safety problems to errors caused by the replacement workers.

The sight of these replacement workers undermining the workers’ fight to maintain their benefits and decent standard of living and the threats to the health safety of their neighbors, families, and friends caused by the inexperienced replacement workers did not sit well with strikers.

Some workers were justifiably enraged by the replacement workers’ actions.

When they expressed their anger at the company and at the replacement workers themselves, the company fired them.

When the workers return to work on Friday, those fired during the strike will still be out of a job.

The new agreement establishes an arbitration process that allows for a review of the terminations and possible reinstatement of those who were fired.

Fifteen of those fired, were accused of vandalism. They will have their firings reviewed by an independent arbitrator appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who mediated the end of the strike.

Returning workers were also miffed by the fact that some replacement workers will remain on the job during a transition period and by the company’s requirement that striking workers attend a two-day training workshop on the company’s code of conduct and safety.

Many of the strikers are long-time Momentive employees with years of experience handling the plant’s dangerous chemicals and operating the plant’s equipment They are more than capable of leading the safety classes that they will be attending.

During the strike, some workers who voted for President Trump hoped that he would intervene to help end the strike.

But those hopes faded when they learned that one of Trump’s new economic advisers would be Steve Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, another one of the world’s largest private equity companies that until last summer owned a stake in Momentive. Schwarzman is the new chairman of the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum.

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Momentive workers gain momentum in their fight for a fair contract

Striking workers on January 13 picketed the Manhattan offices of Apollo Global Management, a private equity fund that manages $188 billion worth of investments.

The workers are on strike at Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford, New York. Momentive is a chemical company that manufactures silicone products at its Waterford plant.

Apollo Global Management is the principle owner of Momentive. Another billion dollar private equity company–The Blackstone Group–also owns a share of Momentive.

Since the private equity companies took control of Momentive in 2006, workers have endured a series of wage and benefit reductions that began in 2008.

When contract negotiations began in 2016, Apollo demanded more benefit cuts and other concessions, but the 700 members of IUE-CWA Local 81359/81380 said enough is enough and voted to strike if Apollo insisted on more cuts.

One of the striking workers picketing Apollo on Friday was Conrad Lape, who has worked at the Momentive Waterford plant for 14 years.

“When these private equity billionaires came in, Momentive starting cutting wages and benefits,” said Lape, to the Albany Times Union. “While I and my fellow workers are just trying to make sure we have health coverage and the ability to feed our families, these hedge funds are getting even richer off of my family’s financial insecurity. Waterford is a small town, and the entire community is disgusted.”

The strikers have endured a brutal winter on strike to stop Apollo’s wage and benefits race to the bottom.

Until 2006, the Waterford plant was owned by General Electric. GE sold the plant to Apollo and other investors for $3.8 billion, most of which was financed by a bond sale.

While Apollo borrowed the money to finance the buyout, the new company and its workers were the ones responsible for paying the nearly $4 billion debt resulting from the leveraged buyout.

As a result of its heavy debt load, Momentive began cutting expenses. In 2008, it announced that it was reclassifying some jobs, reducing the pay of workers who held those jobs by between 25 percent and 50 percent.

The union fought the pay reduction and won a temporary reprieve in the form of back pay for the workers who lost wages, but the company was eventually able to make the wage reductions permanent.

The company again took aim on its workers in 2013 when it froze their pension benefits.

In 2014, Momentive declared bankruptcy. It emerged from bankruptcy in the same year. The bankruptcy allowed it to shed $3 billion of the company’s debt.

But the company continued to look for ways to cut costs, and when the union began bargaining for a new collective bargaining agreement, the company demanded that the workers pay more for their health insurance and accept less coverage. The company also proposed eliminating health care insurance for retirees.

Those and other concessions that the company demanded gave workers little choice but to strike.

The company has tried to keep production going by hiring replacement workers.

The replacement workers, however, are unfamiliar with the chemical processes that take place at the Waterford plant, which has created safety problems.

The union reports that “since the strike began, there have been 30 chemical spills at the plant, over seven times the rate of spills when the trained workers are on the job.”

The spilled chemicals are toxic, which creates a threat to the safety of the community beyond the plant.

The Times Union reports that because of the threat to the community posed by the spills, New York’s Environmental Conservation Commission plans to take enforcement action against Momentive.

Earlier in the month another state agency, the state comptroller, urged Momentive to settle the strike. The comptroller oversees New York state pension funds that hold investments in Momentive.

On January 9, Momentive and the workers’ unions returned to the bargaining table.

On January 13, the same day that union workers were picketing Apollo, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department announced that it would withdraw its security detail from Momentive, a sign that the local community is growing tired of Momentive’s efforts to wear down its workers.

The union is urging people who want to support the Momentive workers to make a donation to the workers’ solidarity fund and to sign a petition urging Apollo to settle the strike.

Momentive workers strike against more concession demands

Striking workers stood their ground as a busload of temporary replacement workers inched through the strikers’ picket line at the Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant in Waterford, New York, 11 miles northeast of Albany.

More than 600 workers, members of IUE-CWA Local 81359, began their strike at noon on November 2 after negotiations between the union and company broke down.

As soon as the strike began, Momentive started busing in strike breakers.

The fact that Momentive would try to keep production going at a chemical plant where complicated machinery and an intricate piping system process tons of quartz and silicon  was an ominous sight to John Ryan.

Ryan, a 26-year Momentive worker, told the Waterford Daily Gazette that the use of untrained, inexperienced workers posed a threat to the community at large.

“They just brought replacement workers in,” said Ryan to the Gazette as the bus finally made it through the gate. “It shows how very little they care about the community of Waterford and the workers. Just a couple years ago [the site] blew two people up. They were in the hospital and almost died. If it wasn’t for our workers who did the brigade work to save their lives and get them to the hospital, they’d be dead. They bring these guys in here and put Waterford in jeopardy. They’re going to be running equipment that they can barely run when we’re in there. . . . Well, it shows how little they care about us and the community of Waterford. They just care about their pockets.”

Momentive is a chemical company that makes silicon and quartz products used in sealants, adhesives, caulk, semiconductors, and consumer electronics.

The strike began after workers rejected a company proposal that would have severely cut their health care and pension benefits.

This wasn’t the first time that Momentive demanded concessions from its workers.

The company’s concessionary demands began shortly after Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s largest private equity companies, bought General Electric’s advanced materials plant in Waterford in 2006 and renamed it Momentive.

To finance the deal, Apollo borrowed $3.8 billion strapping its new company with more than $4 billion in debt.

About the same time that Apollo bought Momentive, it was purchasing other companies. For example, Apollo bought Claire’s Stores for $3.1 billion in 2007. In 2008, it and another private equity firm, bought what is now called Caesars Entertainment for $8 billion.

Apollo borrowed heavily to make these and other purchases, and the companies that Apollo purchased were responsible for repaying Apollo’s heavy debt load.

As Apollo was loading up its newly purchased companies with large amounts of debt, the Great Recession and financial crisis hit.

The financial losses caused by a weak economy and the high debt load with which Apollo saddled its new companies put their survival at risk.

At Momentive, workers paid the price for Apollo’s debt-fueled buying spree.

More than 400 Momentive workers at its Waterford plant were told in 2008 that their pay was being cut.

The pay cuts were drastic. Kat Aaron, a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Workshop reported that one veteran worker saw his pay drop from $29.11 an hour to $17 an hour.

The pay cuts also fell most heavily on workers who had worked for Momentive for a long time.

The union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and in 2010 won back pay of thousands of dollars for those affected by the wage cuts.

However, a new collective bargaining agreement ratified by the membership in 2010 re-instituted the pay cuts.

In 2014, still struggling under its heavy debt load, Momentive filed for bankruptcy.

The company’s weak financial situation and its bankruptcy filing made it difficult for the union to regain the workers’ lost wages.

But when Momentive emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, workers’ health care and pension benefits were still intact.

Now, two years later, Momentive wants to shift workers to a high deductible health plan and eliminate the workers’ pension plan for new hires, which puts all workers’ pensions at risk.

Two days after the strike began, Momentive made another offer in hopes of ending the strike.

Details of that offer are not available.

Union members voted on the offer on Sunday, November 6 and Monday, November 7. The offer was rejected by a vote of 476 to 190.

GE and unions begin bargaining; company takes a hard line

The first week of negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between GE and its US unions wrapped up on June 5.

Union representatives attending the negotiations in New York City said that GE is willfully ignoring the important role that its workers have played in the company’s success over the last four years.

“The company has come out with a lot of information,” said Fred Harris, recording secretary for UE Local 601, who has been sitting at the bargaining table. “They basically said that they have a lot of money, but they want to keep the money. They don’t want to share it with the worker who produced the money.”

GE is bargaining with the Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC), a coalition of 11 unions whose members work for GE in the US. The two unions with the most members at GE are UE and IUE-CWA, and they are taking the lead during the negotiations.

The CBC is proposing a fair wage increase that reflects the important contribution that the workers have made to GE’s success and improves members’ standard of living.

It also wants

  • a health care plan that provides uncomplicated access to quality health care like the plan they had before the latest collective bargaining agreement went into effect,
  • a defined benefit pension plan that provides retirement security for all employees, including those hired after January 1, 2012, who the company has barred from participating in the pension plan, and
  • protections from outsourcing, which GE is using to lower labor costs and weaken the bargaining position of its union workers.

UE General President Bruce Kipple said that in 2011, the last time that the CBC and GE negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, GE took advantage of the unions’ unfavorable bargaining position to “overreach,” which resulted in a roll back of health care and pension benefits and inadequate wage increases.

The union’s unfavorable bargaining position at the time was caused by GE’s financial instability, largely the result of management’s decision to enter the financial services business, a decision that nearly caused GE to crater after the 2008 financial crisis.

“Our members will not stand for another round of one-sided negotiations!” said Kipple during his opening remarks as the negotiations began. “We come to the bargaining table with proposals that push back against the company’s overreach of 2011.”

But as union representatives  presented their case for a fair contract during the opening week of negotiations, GE management appeared to be unmoved.

In one such presentation, union representatives described the problems that the company’s new health care plan has created.

“People are having all sorts of problems with this health care system,” said Sherice Stark, business agent for UE Local 332 during a break from the negotiations. “It’s too hard to use; it’s complicated; it’s expensive. (GE management) seem to shrug their shoulders and agree with us, but I haven’t seen any answers for this yet.”

The average union GE worker is paying 2.4 percent more for health care than they paid in 2011, which has resulted in a $21 million health care cost shift to workers.

The higher health care costs have eaten into take home pay.

According to a calculation made by UE researchers, after rising health care costs and inflation are taken into account, workers pay at GE went up only 0.52 percent a year.

At the same time that pay stagnated for workers, GE profits rose at a healthy clip.

In 2010, GE reported profits of $14 billion; four years later, it reported profits of nearly $18 billion, up by more than 25 percent.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt fared much better during this four-year period than the workers who made these profits possible.

In 2010, Immelt was paid $21.5 million in compensation; in 2014, his annual compensation soared by 73 percent to $37.25 million.

While the last four years have been good to Immelt and GE, the future looks even brighter.

GE representatives told union bargainers that the company has $250 billion worth of back orders booked, and most of those orders are for Tier 4 locomotives, LEAP aircraft engines, and H-class turbines, all of which are made by union workers.

The rosy outlook has led GE to announce that it will spend $50 billion to buy back stock shares, which will make wealthy investors even wealthier.

While GE seems more than ready and able to share its wealth with top executives and wealthy investors, it’s bargaining position so far suggests that it has a different agenda for workers.

As a result, this year’s bargaining will be as difficult as any since GE recognized its first union in 1938, and it may take more than hard bargaining to win a fair contract for GE workers.