Thanksgiving on the Picket Lines at Momentive
Seven hundred workers who make adhesives and sealants for Momentive Performance Materials will spend Thanksgiving on the picket lines.
They’ve been on strike since November 2, fighting the company’s efforts to hike health care costs, eliminate retiree health care, undermine vacation time, and reduce 401(k) payments for younger workers, who had their pension frozen in the last contract.
“We just want to come to work, do our jobs, and be able to go to the doctor and live our lives,” said shop steward Kellie Rossner, who has put in four and a half years at Momentive. “We’re not asking for anything more.”
Strikers—many of them in Labor Notes’ Troublemakers Union hoodies and T-shirts—are picketing at the eight gates that ring the massive 700-acre plant in Waterford, New York, where the company has its headquarters. A popular sign reads “Making People Miserable,” a riff on the company’s initials.
An old diner across from the plant serves as their “Hot Dog Headquarters.” They’ve got fire pits to keep warm, and gas grills to stay fed—and they even had a Saturday movie night at the main gate.
“We’ve taken two concessionary contracts already,” said IUE-CWA Local 81359 President Dom Patrignani. “We were not going to take a third. The business is doing well.”
Momentive’s previous CEO was John Rich—a name that inspired signs like, “John Rich, Me Poor.” At the helm today is Jack Boss (we’re not kidding!), who pulled in $5.4 million in compensation in 2015.
‘USE YOUR BODY UP’
Rossner, a chemical operator, works in Building 76, known as “the building of stink and stairs” for its bad-smelling chemicals, combustibles, and flammables.
“The work really isn’t so bad—you kind of get in a rhythm,” she said. “But you have to be watching for the unexpected. At a moment’s notice, one valve could push something to the wrong kettle and cause a horrible situation.”
Momentive is proposing to move its production and technical workers to the same health plan as its non-union, salaried workforce.
“But it’s unfair to align us with a workforce that’s primarily in offices, when we’re on the front lines,” said Rossner. “Unfortunately, there are times when people have gotten splashed in the face or on the arms with chemicals.
“A lot of these chemicals are corrosive and can burn you easily. You are almost constantly having a low-level exposure. No matter how safe you try to be, that’s the nature of the business.”
“They want to use your body up and throw you out in the street,” said John Ryan, a former Local 81359 executive board member who’s been out on disability after a knee operation.
Five years ago Rossner was working two full-time, non-union jobs at once—as an auto-shop administrator at the Waterford plant and a stock room manager at Abercrombie & Fitch. She hopes to make a career at Momentive, but says the company is making that difficult.
“In the past, the reward outweighed the risk,” she said. “And we had health care that would take care of us. Now the company is trying to remove that, and it’s making it seem like it might not be a great career.”
During the strike, Momentive is trying to operate the plant with a combination of replacement workers and managers.
Workers and local residents are worried that puts the entire community at risk. By the company’s own standards, “it normally takes anywhere from a year and a half to five years to qualify on a job,” said Ryan.
Retirees are up in arms too. The company wants to eliminate health care coverage for both post-65 and pre-65 retirees. Instead it would offer them reimbursements to buy their own coverage on private health exchanges.
Some of these retirees worked at the plant before the 1971 advent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“When I started, you did not have the personal protective equipment or OSHA,” said retired logistics operator John Phelps, president of the local’s Retired Members’ Council. “I remember for years tearing off insulation that had asbestos, with no masks.”
Phelps also remembers inhaling toluene vapors—which can cause severe neurological harm—without anyone telling him to wear a respirator. “Now, the personal protective equipment is much better. But there’s a lot of danger.”
Phelps participated in the last big strike at the Momentive facilities, a three-month walkout in 1969. “Most of these people are younger,” he said. “They’ve never experienced a strike of this magnitude and realized the effects.
“So far the unity’s good. Community, businesses, they’ve been absolutely fabulous in providing food and other things to the strikers.”
JOHN RICH AND JACK BOSS
The company was spun off from GE in 2006 and snapped up by the private equity fund Apollo Management in a $3.8 billion leveraged buyout.
Momentive soon slashed production workers’ wages by 25 to 50 percent and outsourced dozens of jobs to non-union workers. In 2013 it froze pensions for younger workers.
Local 81359, which represents most of the strikers, has been a regular participant in Labor Notes conferences. The strike also includes two much smaller locals—representing lab techs at the Waterford plant, and workers at another Momentive plant in Willoughby, Ohio.
The 2010 and 2013 contracts passed narrowly. Both times the majority voted no in Local 81359, but yes votes in the smaller locals put the deals over the top. This fall the smaller locals again voted near-unanimously to accept the company’s offers—but Momentive workers came out against, in large enough numbers to outvote them and reject two tentative agreements so far.
After several concessionary contracts, Ryan said, “you come to a point where you can only take so much. You can only take so many bad contracts in a row.”