On the Picket Line: A strike round up
May 7, 2021
Workers’ Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores
Welcome to On the Picket Line! This is the first installment of what we plan to be a regular, monthly column reporting on the strikes and struggles of workers taking place across the country. The point of this column is, first and foremost, to shine a light on and help support the many on-the-job struggles of the working class. These struggles are all too often ignored, or else distorted by the capitalist press. By writing this column, we hope to provide insight into the nature of the class struggle during the current period in order to help build the fight.
On The Picket Line is written and edited by volunteers who are militants of Workers’ Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores on top of working full-time jobs. We do not have the resources of a fully professional newsroom. We would like to encourage people to reach out to us with corrections and comments or to provide additional information and tips about stories we may have missed.
We have chosen a good time to start this column. Not only are we publishing this opening installment shortly after International Workers Day, but the column also comes amidst a noticeable uptick in strike activity – particularly by industrial workers, but also by academic workers, nurses, and others. In April, there were three large-scale strikes by industrial workers – two of which are still ongoing. (All three are discussed below.)
There is a material context to this increase in strikes. Following last year’s sharp economic crisis – which was the key factor in the major drop off in strikes that took place in 2020 – economic activity is now beginning to recover at a rapid pace. The good times are coming once again, the bosses keep telling us. The New York Times recently estimated that economic output “should return to pre-pandemic levels by summer.” Beyond that, while working people are still extremely hard hit by the pandemic, the jobs market is improving. The Times notes that, in March, “employers added 916,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 6 percent, while initial claims for unemployment benefits have dropped sharply in recent weeks.” In late April, “the Labor Department reported that initial claims for state unemployment benefits had fallen to the lowest levels of the pandemic for the third consecutive week.”
These trends are evident to workers on the shopfloor. Economic conditions are dramatically improving. The bosses are hiring. Production levels have been continuously increasing for months. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration is pushing for the passage of an infrastructure bill – aimed at boosting capitalist profits and bolstering U.S. imperialist competition with China – that will likely lead to a surge in capital investment in manufacturing and other productive industries. At the same time, there’s a great deal of pent-up frustration among workers on account of the way that we’ve been treated, the concessions that we’ve been forced to make, and the dangerous working conditions we’ve been subjected to during the pandemic.
All in all, the objective conditions for winning concessions at work are more favorable at present than they’ve been since the height of the last boom in 2018 or 2019. This is not to say that we’re on the cusp of some sort of “strike wave.” Clearly, the obstacles to building workers’ power and fighting back – including the problems of business unionism and internal issues within the labor movement itself – are formidable at present, to say the least. This was clearly demonstrated in the recent high-profile union election loss at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.
Despite this, there are signs that there is a heightened degree of collective confidence among many sectors of workers. This partially accounts for the abundance of strike news to cover in this first column. And for what it’s worth, this also means that this column is, by necessity, quite incomplete! Be that as it may, what follows are accounts of some of the important current strikes and struggles being waged by our class.
UAW factory workers strike in Scottsville, Texas
Around 200 workers are on strike at the Prysmian Group factory along U.S. Highway 80 in Scottsville, Texas. The strike started on March 27 after the union’s previous contract expired. The workers, who manufacture cables for power lines and telecommunication systems, are organized through United Auto Workers Local 3057.
The key demands in the strike relate to wages and benefits, as well as the issue of scheduling and overtime. The plant operates on a 24-7 production schedule – and workers work a great deal of mandatory overtime.
The Prysmian Group plant in Scottsville is one of the largest employers in Harrison County, Texas, where Scottsville is located. Workers are aware that, by taking a stand at Prysmian, they’re defending the interests of the broader working-class community on a local level. As Local 3057 president Chris Hodge explained to the Marshall News Messenger, “We are just doing our part for the people.”
Workers are picketing at the plant around the clock. Additionally, the strikers have received support from trade unionists in the region. On two occasions thus far, the labor movement in Dallas has sent buses full of fellow unionists to picket in solidarity with striking workers at the plant, according to the News Messenger.
Since the start of the strike, there have been some limited dialogue and negotiations between union representatives and the company. At the same time, the company appears to be actively recruiting scabs. On one occasion in mid-April, a strikebreaker punched a striking worker on the picket line.
Based in Milan, Italy, the Prysmian Group is a very large company. It specializes in the manufacturing of electric power transmissions and telecommunication cables and systems. According to the company’s website, Prysmian Group has 13 plants in North America. On an international level, the company has 82 plants, employs more than 21,000 workers, and operates in 50 countries. The North American headquarters for Prysmian Group is located at the company’s plant in Highland Heights, Kentucky.
For donations to support the UAW strikers at Prysmian in Scottsville, please send checks to – Shannon Patrick, UAW Region 8, 151 Maddox Simpson Parkway, Lebanon, TN 37090. Make checks payable to “UAW Region 8” and put “Local 3057 Strike Relief” in the info line.
Two-week strike ends at Bradken foundry in Atchison, Kansas
Members of United Steelworkers Local 6943 have returned to work after a two-week strike at the Bradken foundry in Atchison, Kansas. Workers waged the struggle to protect seniority rights and to fight unfair labor practices by the company.
Prior to the start of the strike on March 22, USW Local 6943 had been in contract negotiations with Bradken corporation. Around 200 production workers are employed at the company’s foundry in Atchison. Workers at the plant use electric-arc furnaces to produce “locomotive rail and transit components and assemblies,” as well as “mining, construction, industrial and military castings and general steel castings,” according to the company’s website. The Bradken corporation, which is based in Australia and has operations in multiple continents, is a subsidiary of the Japanese company Hitachi Construction Machinery.
At the start of the strike, the company sent letters to workers encouraging them to withdraw from the union and cross the pick lines, according to the Atchison Globe. In addition, the company also filed a temporary restraining order against the workers to limit picketing at the foundry during the course of the struggle. According to workers on social media, at one point, the company summoned four police squad cars to the picket line – clearly demonstrating to workers that the police are on the side of the employer against the workers.
During the course of the two-week struggle, the union held a community rally and groupings of two dozen or more workers continuously picketed the plant. An agreement to end the strike was reached on April 5, according to Many Signals Communications. One member of Local 6943 summed up his thoughts on the conclusion of the strike on the local’s Facebook page:
I’m more proud today to be a union member than ever before! We made a huge statement these last 2 weeks! Thanks to everyone that made it possible to stand ground and not let the company walk all over us!
USW on strike at ATI
Some 1,300 steelworkers at Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) represented by United Steelworkers (USW) are on strike at nine facilities located in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in protest against ATI’s demands for concessions in an ongoing contract renegotiation. The union has also decried ATI for engaging in unfair labor practices by refusing to provide workers necessary bargaining information. Key issues of contention in the strike, which began on March 30, are the company’s proposals to increase workers’ healthcare costs and introduce a two-tiered healthcare system, as well as management’s plan to close plants. The USW is fighting to maintain pensions for workers forced into retirement as a result of plant closures.
Workers at ATI have not had a raise since 2014, and the company has filed reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicating that they have recently laid off 17 percent of their workforce, a high proportion of which were unionized jobs. Still, despite having reported losses for the past year, the company has yet to cut executive pay and is expected to rebound in 2021, giving ample reason to be skeptical of management’s claims that workers need to share the burden. Workers see these maneuvers as nothing less than an attempt to kill off the union.
This strike is the first by workers at ATI since 1994. More recently, between 2015 and 2016, the company locked out workers at ATI facilities across the country. In that bitter, seven-month-long struggle, workers were able to beat back many of the company’s worst demands for concessions. As was the case with the 2015-2016 lockout, this time around, ATI has stated that they plan to keep operating using non-union labor for the duration of the dispute. The ability of the company to maintain output levels through the use of scabs and bosses is suspect. The strike is clearly having a major impact on the company’s bottom line, as management itself has implied.
According to press reports, at present, ATI and the union have come to an agreement regarding pay raises, but continue to negotiate over health care benefits and profit sharing. On April 21, the company issued an ultimatum, claiming that a proposed deal it was offering that included major concessions on health care costs would only remain on the table until the end of the business day the following Monday. If the workers refused to accept this bum deal, the company declared that the proposal “will be replaced by an offer that begins to reflect the costs incurred by ATI as a result of the strike.” The union rejected this maneuver, correctly denouncing the company’s ultimatum as “bully tactics” and turning down the proposal. As of this publishing, the strike is ongoing.
UAW calls off strike at Volvo trucks plant in Virginia
After a 13-day strike by some 2,900 UAW members at the massive Volvo Trucks of North America plant in Dublin, Virginia, the UAW announced on April 30 that it had reached a new tentative agreement with the company. The union called upon members to disband picket lines at the plant and return to work beginning on Sunday for third shift. The move came despite the fact that members had not yet been informed of the details of the tentative agreement or given the opportunity to vote on the proposed deal.
The arrangement led to discontent among striking workers, some of whom took to the Facebook page of UAW Local 2069 to express their frustration. One worker declared, “We should not have to go to work on an agreement we do not agree on. We voted to strike for a reason. Not to make corporate and UAW jobs easier.”
The decision by the union leadership to shut down the strike before workers vote on the contract is contrary to the principle of union democracy and potentially undermines the interests of rank-and-file workers. As Socialist Resurgence has pointed out, “These autoworkers have a right to see and discuss the contract that they sacrificed 13 days for on the picket line. Returning to work before a contract is ratified gives the company the upper hand and implies the negotiating committee doesn’t care about input from the rank and file, who stuck their necks out to improve working conditions.”
This strike, which started on April 17, comes after members voted in February by a margin of 98.6 percent to authorize a strike. Following this, the union and the company agreed to a month-long extension in negotiations before workers finally walked off the job in April. The key demands at play in this strike relate to a two-tier wage system at the plant, where new hires are paid as little as half of what long-term employees make. Beyond this, the workers are demanding that the company pay for health care for retirees at the plant, who currently are forced to purchase their own insurance after retiring.
While Volvo, like all multinational auto companies, has been impacted by the global shortage of semiconductor chips used as component parts at assembly plants, production demand for new heavy duty trucks is currently sky rocketing. The trade publication FleetOwner has reported that, as of March, monthly North American orders for the Class 8 truck produced at the plant have exceeded the company’s productive capacity for the past six months. Meanwhile, the head of the commercial transportation consulting firm ACT Research has declared that “Demand for commercial vehicles in North America is about as good as we’ve seen in 35 years of monitoring heavy-duty market conditions. Times are so good that demand is far outrunning the industry’s ability to supply right now, and that will likely remain the case into the autumn and perhaps even through the winter.”
On top of these fortuitous market conditions, the Volvo plant in Virginia has been massively expanding in recent years. According to statements by the company, the Volvo trucks plant is in the middle of a $400 million expansion and upgrade. Since 2016, the plant has added some 1,100 additional jobs – and it plans to add some 600 more during the course of 2021. Notably, the Virginia plant is Volvo’s only North American production facility, which means that a protracted strike at the plant could completely choke off the sale and delivery of new Volvo trucks for the entire continent at a time of booming demand.
This is an opportune time to take a real stand and fight to win back many of the concessions exacted by the company in years past. While union members have returned to work, they will have a chance to vote on the proposed contract on Sunday, May 16.
Alabama coal miners strike at Warrior Met
In Alabama, some 1,100 coal miners, organized through the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), are on strike at multiple mines owned by the company Warrior Met Coal Inc. In contract negotiations leading up to the strike, Warrior Met Coal demanded extensive concessions from workers despite posting tens of millions of dollars in profits in recent years and paying exorbitant bonuses to upper management. The workers walked off the job at the start of night shift on April 1, demanding a new contract with increased wages and health benefits.
This is the first contract negotiation since the mine’s prior owner, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy and was bought out by Warrior Met in 2016. The terms of the buyout forced major concessions upon workers, who feared the prospect of losing their jobs entirely. Despite shipping increased amounts of coal and posting record profits since the buyout, the company is now pushing for further concessions from the workers.
The disparity between the miners’ working conditions and their bosses’ is stark. Left Voice reports that workers work twelve hour shifts six to seven days a week and barely see their families, with little vacation time offered. As if that was not enough, workers are forced to endure a “four strike” regime, where four work absences within 15 weeks results in being fired, regardless of the reason for the absences. This policy applies to absences resulting from work-related injuries as well, forcing workers to return to the mines immediately after being discharged from the hospital or risk termination. Working conditions are dangerous, with injuries commonplace and the threat of deadly methane gas explosions ever-present. Despite the miners’ herculean efforts under terrible conditions – one worker referred to the mines as “a death house”– workers remain woefully under-compensated: longtime workers at the facility have stated that they made more money in 2009 than they do today.
Union workers that participate in strike duties are being supported by biweekly payments from the union’s strike fund. The union has also secured health insurance for strikers and their families for the duration of the struggle. Morale is high among the miners, many of whom are the children and grandchildren of miners themselves, and who understand the importance of standing united against the bosses in order to secure adequate wages, safe working conditions, and dignity on the job.
Following the start of the strike, the union and the company reached a tentative agreement in early April, but this deal was rejected by a rank-and-file vote on April 9. The tentative agreement would have provided a meager raise of $1 per hour per tier of employment and $0.50 after three years. In addition, the deal would have merely converted the four-strike policy to a six-strike policy. This is much less than what workers are hoping to win. Some workers called the proposed deal a “slap in the face” from the company. Since the proposed contract was voted down, the union has begun holding regular “Unity Rallies” for strikers, their families, and supporters.
Auto parts workers in Tecumseh, Michigan win short and sweet strike
On Tuesday, April 13, workers at the Kirchoff Automotive parts supplier plant in Tecumseh, Michigan launched a short, sweet, and successful single-day strike in order to win a new and improved contract from their employer.
Around 780 workers are employed at the Tecumseh plant, which produces vehicle body components used in auto assembly plants.
Prior to the strike, the company and UAW Local 3000, which represents workers at the plant, had reached a tentative agreement for a new contract. According to news reports from the local Daily Telegram, workers turned down this proposal and sent their negotiators back to the bargaining table to obtain a better deal. When the company failed to come to terms with the union before a bargaining deadline set by the union for April 12, workers walked off the job the following day. The key sticking points that led to the strike, according to the local union president, related to poor working conditions and health and safety issues.
The strike brought a quick resolution for the workers. At 6:56 p.m. on that same day, the company agreed to a new tentative agreement, according to the Daily Telegram.
In waging this struggle, workers at the Kirchoff plant were evidently able to make use of the “just in time” structure of the auto industry, where a strike at a supplier plant can quickly trigger a shutdown at assembly plants and produce cascading economic losses for employers.
Workers in auto supplier plants in the Midwest and elsewhere have a history of waging these types of short and devastatingly effective work stoppages. In 2014, for example, around 70 workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, who make brake systems and struts for the Chrysler (now Stellantis) plant across town, went on a successful eight-hour strike for union recognition. As detailed in Labor Notes, “Because of Chrysler’s tight ‘just-in-time’ delivery system,” the strike at Piston “could have quickly shut down production of the profitable Cherokee.” Within hours, the bosses recognized the workers’ union to prevent this from happening.
A closing note
This is far from a complete list of important strikes and struggles taking place across the country. Beyond what’s mentioned here, other significant labor struggles include the ongoing lockout of 200 Teamsters at the Marathon oil refinery in St. Paul Park, Minnesota, as well as the lockout of 600 USW members at the ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont, Texas. Beyond this, hundreds of nurses at the St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts have been on strike since early March. Graduate student workers are also on strike at New York University.