Iowa Corn Processors Stunned by Lockout

As soon as the corn millers and refiners of Keokuk, Iowa, cast an overwhelming “no” vote against a contract choked with 60-plus concessions, workers returned to the plant to clock in for the second shift. They found that their employer, the French firm Roquette, had barricaded them out.

The vote, among the 240 members of Grain Millers (BCTGM) Local 48g, was taken September 28. Since then, busloads of scabs have rolled into the plant to replace the locked-out workers.

The company had laid its plans far in advance. For two months, it secretly trained replacement workers in a rented church nearby, to make the starches and syrups that end up in all kinds of animal feeds, chemicals, and foods. Online articles from the local paper and TV station announced the lockout even before workers had finished voting.

The company had booked hotel rooms for the scabs in this small town of 11,000 on the banks of the Mississippi. Additional guards from the security firm Securitas were shipped in.

The concessions Local 48g members refused included pension cuts, expanded use of temps, extended probationary periods for new workers, a health plan the employer could alter at any time, and management’s right to shift workers among jobs virtually at will.

Roquette is privately held, but Standard & Poor’s estimates its U.S. subsidiary has annual sales of $600 million. Union members say their contract cost is less than $17 million, and that the company is spending far more on the lockout than it would operating under the old agreement.

“We as a family have given this company over 110 years of service and in turn they use a lockout to destroy our life savings,” said Robb Kemper, who’s worked 20-plus years at Roquette.


Kemper noted that Keokuk residents have also handed the company millions of dollars in tax incentives to install and upgrade a flood wall, boiler plant, new feed house, and local streets.

“The community has sandbagged twice to help save them from flooding,” he said. “Where is the loyalty to their workers and the community?”

The fight brings back memories of another group of corn-processing workers locked out by an aggressive multinational employer—the stalwarts at A.E. Staley in the early ’90s “war zone” in Decatur, Illinois. The Staley workers shook off a sluggish response from their international, put on a work-to-rule before getting locked out, and then sent “road warriors” around the country to drum up support.

BCTGM Local 48g is still struggling to regain its balance. The workers have seen plenty of support from the local community, with residents constantly stopping by the picket lines with food and coffee. But the local agreed to a media blackout one month into the lockout, and making the case to a wider audience has been difficult.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Roquette’s corn syrup ends up in highly visible products, like Miller Beer, but a corporate campaign targeting buyers hasn’t been on the table yet.

Members have been picketing, and have held a few marches on Saturdays with other local unions to show solidarity. The International has provided some financial support. But identifying a union strategy to win is difficult.

OSHA has been called to the plant twice within a recent week, requesting that the local’s president accompany inspectors into the plant. On the second trip, Roquette was fined for several small violations.


Since the lockout began, Roquette has met several times with the union bargaining committee and a federal mediator.

Little progress is being made, apparently, but it’s hard to tell. Union policy is not to discuss details of negotiations with members. Many are frustrated with this stance.

Members are also adamant that they want to get back to work.

“The only reason we are not down there is because Roquette doesn’t want us down there,” said Bill Helenthal, a 12-year veteran. “Regardless, I am here to stand with the union.

“It is not about the money for us, it is about giving future hourly employees a chance. If we don’t fight for them, Roquette will just use them and then throw them away when they’re done.”

Robert Shattell is a BCTGM Local 48g member and a refinery operator at Roquette.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #381, December 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.