Small union, big victory

A small group of workers in Greenfield, Massachusetts recently demonstrated why the working class needs unions and why solidarity and militancy are the keys to making unions strong again.

Seventy-four members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 274 on June 23 unanimously approved a new collective bargaining agreement with their employer Kennametal.

Local 274 President Shawn Coates called the new agreement “a great contract with good benefits and good wage increases.”

There was another important feature about the contract: It did not include any of the concessions proposed by the company in its last, best, and final offer.

Kennametal is a global company that manufactures precision metal cutting tools for construction, mining, aerospace, and other industries. It reported sales of $2.1 billion in 2016 and operates in 60 countries.

When negotiations with Local 274 over a new collective bargaining agreement began in March, the company appeared to have the upper hand.

Its operation in Greenfield employs about 80 union members, less than 1 percent of the 11,000 employed by Kennametal all over the world.

To make matters worse, Kennametal reported financial losses in 2015 and 2016, which led to the elimination of 1000 Kennametal jobs and the closure of some of its facilities.

In 2010 when the country was still suffering the aftermath of the Great Recession, Kennametal took advantage of the hard times to wrest concessions from the union including the introduction of a two tiered wage and benefits system.

When the 2017 negotiations began the company was hungry for more concessions including scrapping the workers quality health care plan and replacing it with a flex plan–a health insurance plan with high deductibles, limited coverage.

The company had been able to impose its flex plan on its other Kennametal workers in the US.

When negotiations stalled, the company made its last, best, and final offer chock full of the concessions they proposed when bargaining began.

Instead of caving in the workers fought back intelligently and creatively.

They established informational picket lines outside the gate once or twice a week to demonstrate their unity and to inform the community about their fight to resist concessions.

Greenfield is a strong union town where UE has had a presence for decades. Workers received strong support from the community.

The union held two well attended rallies at the plant gates. In addition to the Kennametal union members, those who came to rallies included Local 274 members who worked at other places, other UE members, who came from all over the Northeast, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, workers mobilized by Jobs with Justice, and local community supporters.

The union also took the fight into the plant itself. Without going into details, UE reports that “the struggle on the shop floor was waged during every working hour, and the company soon began complaining that productivity was down.”

While all of this was going on, the union also filed two unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. “One was for the company unlawfully contracting out work. The other hit the company for unilaterally publicizing its ‘last, best and final offer’ with the false claim that the union was calling for a vote on the offer,” reported the union.

The company finally agreed to a new contract that eliminated virtually all of the concessions that it had previously demanded.

In addition to keeping their health care plan, the union won wage increases ranging from $2.25 an hour to $3.25.

The higher wage increases went to the tier two workers and closed the gap between them and tier one workers from $1.00 an hour to between $0.30 and $0.40 an hour.

The new contract also gives tier two workers the same number of sick days and vacation days as tier one workers, improves the grievance procedure for all workers, and includes new “no lockout” language, which will give workers a stronger bargaining position  when future negotiations take place.

“The vast majority of the members really stuck together,” said Coates. “That gives you some push. Like everybody says, we’re a strong union.”

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