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 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.