Two Years After Huge Wage Cuts, Rally Kicks Off Tense Negotiations for NY Chemical Workers
Wearing bright red shirts emblazoned with a cobra on the back warning “Will Strike if Provoked,” chemical workers in upstate New York came out in force Friday to kick off negotiations for IUE-CWA Local 81359.
The workers, who make silicone products for caulks, adhesives, foams, cosmetics, and tires for the private equity-owned firm Momentive Productive Materials (MPM), rallied and picketed along with representatives of nearly 20 other unions from the Capital District of New York. Three striking workers from the Mott’s applesauce plant also made the four-hour trip from the shores of Lake Ontario to join the rally at the plant outside Albany.
The local’s roughly 600 members are struggling to recover from unilateral pay cuts brought down in 2008 in the early days of the recession. The chemical, maintenance, and warehouse workers represented by IUE-CWA Local 81359 at Momentive were hit with 25 to 50 percent pay cuts mid-contract, while other union members at the plant were spared, giving fresh meaning to the old divide-and-conquer tactic.
With their contract expiring June 20, the local organized the picket and rally to send their negotiators into bargaining on a strong footing. Alongside the contract negotiations, the local is pursuing a National Labor Relations Board complaint over the illegal pay cuts and other contract violations. The complaint is scheduled to be heard in July, creating a complex negotiation for the leaders of Local 81359.
The line of red-shirted workers stretched for a quarter-mile in front of the Momentive chemical works, which fronts the Hudson River.
Many of the signs on the picket line have become familiar to Capital District labor activists. “Honor thy Contract,” “MPM, Making People Miserable,” “Wage Cuts Don't Work”, and “John Rich, Me Poor,” referring to Momentive’s CEO, who took home $1.6 million last year.
Among the labor speakers on the picket line was Ed Bloch, a retired leader of the United Electrical Workers (UE). For Bloch, who walked his first picket line in 1946, coming together with this IUE local was very sweet, after the bitter split of the UE during the 1950s McCarthy era, which he lived through.
“There are people over the past decades with whom we have disagreed,” he said, “to our enormous cost. What we have to find is a way to stick together for what we believe in and fight until the damn thing is over and we are successful in fulfilling our demands.”
This healing of old wounds is just one aspect of what makes the struggle at Momentive notable. The local has used work-to-rule tactics to pressure management while staying inside the plant in the lead-up to contract talks.
A joint mobilization committee between Local 81359 leaders, the Troy Area Labor Council, and the Capital District Area Labor Federation has been set up to support the local during the negotiations. In addition, Local 81359 has reached across the still-existing division between the IUE and CWA and according to President Dominick Patrignani has "punched holes in the wall" that still exists between the two international unions.
Jon Flanders is a member of IAM Local 1145 and of the Troy Area Labor Council.