On the Picket Line: A Strike Roundup (August 2021)

by Workers’ Voice
In this edition of On the Picket Line, read about the latest in the fight for union democracy at UAW, union election victories, contract controversies, and strikes by snack food factory workers, nurses, mechanics, and other workers!

Volvo trucks workers in Virginia back on the job following end of strike

Following two back-to-back strikes, the first of which started in April, some 2,900 autoworkers at the Volvo trucks plant in Dublin, Virginia are now back on the job and working under a new six-year union contract. The end of the most recent strike at the Volvo plant came after workers, who are organized through United Auto Workers Local 2069, narrowly voted to ratify a tentative agreement with the company on July 14 by a margin of just 17 votes for both common and hourly language. This took place despite the fact that workers had already voted the same agreement down less than a week earlier by a margin of 60 to 40 percent.
For many workers, the strike settlement was a disappointment. As the Detroit Free Press reported prior to the contract’s approval, UAW militants took issue with terms of the contract relating to “the cost of health insurance, retiree health care, pay that doesn’t keep up with the cost of living and raises that won’t cover insurance premiums.” Labor Notes points out that the newly approved contract is in most regards essentially the same as two previous tentative agreements that had been voted down, respectively, on May 16 and June 6 – in addition to being exactly the same as the deal that was rejected the previous week. In those two initial contract rejections, workers had repudiated the company’s offer each time by 90 to 91 percent.
Despite the problematic end of the strike, the protracted fight at Volvo was, for much of its duration, characterized by an inspiring display of militancy, steadfast determination, and rank-and-file organizing by workers at the plant. For workers in the auto industry and beyond that are looking to build the type of fighting, class-conscious movement that’s capable of uniting the working class in struggle and exacting concessions from the bosses, there are many lessons to take away from the Volvo strike.
The struggle at Volvo has been ongoing for months. Workers first walked off the job on April 17. After returning to work at the start of May, workers then struck again starting on June 7.
The eventual vote by Volvo workers to approve the new contract came following a concerted campaign by the company to push the strikers back to the job. Since the Dublin, Virginia facility is Volvo’s only truck plant in all of North America, the protracted strike had the effect of completely choking off the production of Volvo trucks for the critical North American market at a time of booming demand. Within this context, the bosses were desperate to get the workers back to the production line. Going into the final contract vote, Volvo management used a number of scare tactics to pressure workers into accepting the deal. These included a threat to withhold a $2,000 bonus in the contract if workers did not approve the contract; a claim that the tentative agreement was the company’s “last, best, and final offer” and that they would be forced to work under the deal no matter what; and a threat to cancel planned investment at the plant if the workers voted no once again.
Unfortunately, throughout this debacle, the leadership of the UAW essentially reiterated the company’s threats, effectively joining in the effort to pressure workers to approve the deal and go back to making trucks in the plant. Indeed, prior to each of the three contract rejection votes, International UAW officials had pushed workers to vote yes despite resounding opposition to the terms of the deal. In many ways, as Labor Notes has aptly pointed out, the ultimate approval of the contract resulted from a failure of the union officials to provide a real plan to lead the workers forward to victory.
One notable part of the International UAW’s conduct in this strike is that contract negotiations at Volvo were orchestrated by none other than Ray Curry – the new President of the International UAW. Prior to being appointed to head the union in late June, Curry had served as the director of the union’s Heavy Trucks Department, where he oversaw negotiations at Volvo. Like his presidential predecessors from the Administration Caucus, which controls the UAW, Curry espouses a philosophy of jointness and cooperation with the auto bosses. Fittingly, less than a week after the conclusion of the Volvo strike, Curry outlined his regressive, class-collaborationist vision for the future of the UAW in an article published in the Detroit Free Press under the headline, “UAW works with employers for union members.”
As pointed out in our article on the Volvo strike from June, the struggle at Volvo speaks to the need for rank-and-file UAW members to fight to democratize their union and transform it into a vehicle for driving the class struggle forward in the auto industry and beyond. Notably, an internal caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), has been organized by rank-and-file members of the union with the aim of restoring the UAW’s proud tradition of militancy. The UAWD is currently campaigning for members to vote yes in a referendum, set to take place this fall, which would allow rank-and-file members to directly elect the union’s executive board and president. The upcoming referendum is stipulated in a consent decree agreement between federal prosecutors and UAW officials stemming from a probe into widespread corruption on the part of the top ranks of the International UAW. UAWD activists have portrayed the campaign to win a “1 Member 1 Vote” election system as a fight to “win  a more democratic system of electing our International officers [that] would allow for every member’s voice to be equally heard.”
For more on the upcoming referendum vote and to sign a pledge to back the right of UAW members to directly elect the president and top leadership of the union, visit the website 1m1v.org.

The NLRB election win at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey

June saw the unionization of nearly 250 workers at a Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey. With a final tally of 114-101 to join the independent United Electrical Workers (UE), the on-site NLRB election came on the heels of a yearlong worker-led organizing campaign sparked in part by the company’s lack of concern for exposing workers to COVID-19. Management’s willingness to gamble with a public health emergency was one of several prominent grievances in the unionization drive; in addition, workers also highlighted their discontent with arbitrary shift scheduling and unreasonable attendance policies.
Refresco is a Netherlands-based multinational company that advertises itself as the  “world’s largest independent bottler.” The company operates some 60 manufacturing facilities located in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Meanwhile, also in the beverage manufacturing and bottling sector, some 266 workers at the Keurig Dr. Pepper plant in Victorville, California voted in an NLRB election in July to join Teamsters Local 896. Like their fellow workers at Refresco New Jersey, the Victorville workers also cited grievances relating to scheduling, arbitrary discipline by management, and the company’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as a driving factor in their decision to organize.

City workers mount two-day strike in Elizabeth City, North Carolina

City workers in Elizabeth City, North Carolina went on strike for two days at the end of June, protesting low pay. The workers are right to be frustrated as their full-time jobs are currently insufficient for making median rent in the city. An official inquiry by the city found that nearly all of the city workers were being paid less than the minimum salary. According to an organizer from UE Local 150, city council members have engaged in false anti-worker smears, claiming that “unions are illegal” at a city council meeting. In response to the pressure from the strike and the city’s inquiry, city officials proposed a 4 percent raise and stated that they would look into a $15 an hour minimum wage. Most of the workers appear to be satisfied by these concessions, at least for now.
The city workers of Elizabeth City, the majority of whom are Black, are organized through a minority union, UE Local 150, which we wrote about in the June edition of On the Picket Line. In North Carolina, public-sector workers like the city workers in Elizabeth City are denied the right to engage in formal collective bargaining based on a Jim Crow-era state law that bars cities, municipalities, and other state employers from entering into collective bargaining agreements with unions or representatives of workers. Hence UE Local 150’s status as a minority union. The struggle of workers in Elizabeth City is also connected to broader social struggles. In recent months, Elizabeth City has been the site of antiracist protests following the police murder of Andrew Brown Jr. in April. Black Lives Matter protesters joined in solidarity with the striking workers in June, connecting the struggle against police violence to the demands by the primarily Black workforce for fair pay and dignity on the job.

Strike by IAM mechanics at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California

Thirty-three mechanics affiliated with Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 have gone on an open-ended strike since June at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California, the local’s first strike in over 20 years. Contract negotiations stalled following the expiration of the union’s last contract in 2020, with Cummins demanding that workers’ health benefits be downgraded. After months of impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their old health program, sending workers’ deductibles skyrocketing by over $8,000 per year.
According to a report by Labor Notes, morale appears to be high among the strikers as of late June: almost all of the mechanics at the shop walked off in unison, and workers are confident that management will not be able to easily replace them with scabs given the highly skilled nature of their jobs. Cummins has made significant profits in the past year, so the workers of IAM Local 1546 appear to be in a good position to demand concessions from the company.
Meanwhile, in early August, some 800 auto mechanics walked off the job at 56 dealerships in the Chicago area. The striking workers are organized through IAM Local 701. These workers have a history of struggle; in 2017, the same unit of workers went on strike for nearly two months.

More than 100 Teamsters stage two-week strike at the Bellingham Cold Storage facility in Bellingham, Washington

Over 100 members of Teamsters Local 231 were on strike at the Bellingham Cold Storage facility in Bellingham, Washington from July 1 to July 14 following a breakdown in contract negotiations that have been ongoing since last November. The striking workers cited a number of issues in their decision to walk off the job, including wages, pension, healthcare, and matters pertaining to contract language. Workers had previously staged a 30-hour strike in June in response to unwillingness by management to come to the bargaining table – an action that resulted in the company conceding to set a negotiation meeting with a federal mediator. The two-week strike in July was motivated by a failure to schedule further negotiations, which union representatives said was a sign of the company’s unwillingness to negotiate. Negotiations resumed on July 12, and workers returned to work on July 15. Mediated negotiations are ongoing
Summer is a critical time for the cold storage industry in Washington, as local berry farmers rely on these services to freeze dry their produce for shipment.

Members of USW Local 7008 at the Custom Hoists plant in Hayesville, Ohio approve new contract after six-week strike

Around 70 workers, organized through United Steel Workers Local 7008, went on a six-week strike starting in June at the Custom Hoists plant in Hayesville, Ohio, demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and better healthcare plans. Workers had grudgingly accepted subpar contracts for the last three contract periods, but continually worsening working conditions, as well as a lack of adequate compensation for working through the COVID-19 pandemic as “essential workers,” pushed workers to strike this time around. After rejecting multiple rounds of offers from the company, workers approved a new contract on July 26. While full details have not been made public, a union representative has stated that the new contract includes a preservation of “essential worker” bonuses, a reduction of disparity between tiers of the wage system, and lower healthcare premiums.
Custom Hoists manufactures hydraulic cylinders and has a production facility in China as well as Ohio.

The protracted lockout of 200 Teamsters at the Marathon oil refinery in St. Paul Park is over

Workers affiliated with Teamsters Local 120 at the Marathon Petroleum oil refinery in St. Paul Park, Minnesota ratified a new contract early in July, ending an eight-month battle with the company. The new six-year contract significantly limits the company’s ability to subcontract union jobs – one of the key points of contention that led to the contract dispute.
Negotiation over the contract began in November 2020, but failed to reach a conclusion before the contract expired in January. Workers went on a one-day strike on January 22, but when they attempted to return to work following the walkout, they were locked out by management. This situation persisted until July, with workers forming pickets and receiving significant support from other unions and the general public. A “final offer” proposed by the company in March was voted down by membership 125-38 in late June; a revised offer submitted later that week was ratified by the workers, ending the dispute.
Workers’ key concerns for the contract were that the company’s subcontracting plans threatened both workers’ jobs and general safety at the plant. Accidents at refineries can cause chemical fires – disasters that local fire departments are not adequately trained to fight, leaving fire mitigation to the plants’ own workers. While the Teamsters union members are trained to take the necessary precautions to avoid and fight chemical fires, the same cannot be said of the subcontracted workers that the company was bringing in to replace the locked-out union members.
In the agreement  that ended the stoppage, workers were able to beat back the company’s demand to replace 42 union maintenance workers at the plant with outside subcontractors. These jobs will continue to be performed by Teamsters under the new contract – thus upholding the safety of the workforce and the broader St. Paul Park community surrounding the plant. Nonetheless, according to Dean Benson, a Marathon worker and the chief union steward of Teamsters Local 120, workers at the refinery were not able to win their full list of safety-based demands. As Benson notes in the July 28 episode of the Teamsters Podcast, “All of the things we were fighting for, they’re not all in the contract. But we’re not going to stop fighting. We’re going to continue to fight every day out there.”

Snack workers on strike! Frito-Lay workers agree to new contract in Kansas, Nabisco workers strike in Oregon

After waging a militant, nearly three-week-long strike that inspired working people across the country, hundreds of workers at the Frito-Lay snack foods plant in Topeka, Kansas have voted to accept a new union contract and return to work. The Topeka Frito-Lay workers are organized through Local 218 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM). For more on this struggle, read our full-length story on the Frito-Lay strike.
Meanwhile, in other BCTGM news, hundreds of workers at the Nabisco factory in Portland Oregon, which produces Oreos and other products, walked off the job on August 10. Following this initial walkout, workers at the Nabisco facilities in Aurora, Colorado and Richmond, Virginia have also gone on strike.
For years, workers at Nabisco plants across the country have been subjected to a vicious campaign of outsourcing, plant closures, union-busting, and attacks against workers’ wages and conditions by Mondelez, the parent company of Nabisco. After having been pushed into a corner by the bosses, the courageous BCTGM workers in Portland, Aurora, and Richmond are now taking a stand.

NNU nurses and SEIU members strike and win gains at Cook County Health in the Chicago area

Following nine months of contract negotiations and a one-day strike held on June 24, nurses at Cook County Health hospitals in the Chicago area voted in early July to approve a new four-year contract that covers some 1,250 workers. The nurses – members of the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC), an affiliate of the National Nurses Union – are employed at Chicago’s publicly-owned Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as a number of clinics in the area.
According to a press release by the union, the new contract addresses longstanding concerns of workers relating to staff shortages with Cook County Health agreeing to hire some 300 registered nurses within the next 18 months. In addition, workers will receive raises of between 12 percent to 31 percent.
The victory by the NNOC nurses coincides with a contract battle and strike waged by members of SEIU Local 73, which includes some 1,500 workers that are employed alongside the nurses at Cook County Health hospitals – everyone from medical aides and technicians to housekeepers, food service workers, and others. The members of SEIU Local 73 had, like their NNOC coworkers, also been in contract negotiations since last fall with Cook County Health. A day after the one-day nurses’ strike in June, Local 73 members began an open-ended strike that lasted for a total of 18 days. According to a press release by Local 73, the tentative agreement that ended the strike allows for issues relating to wages to be brought to arbitration. As the press releases summarizes, “Two economic issues related to raising the wage floor for lowest-paid workers and changing anniversary pay raise steps to reward longevity will move into arbitration, which was not an option available until workers went on strike.”
The SEIU Local 73 strikers rejoined their NNOC coworkers on the job when they returned to work on July 13.
Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals serve the West and South Sides of the city. Demographics of these neighborhoods tend to be Black and Brown, and many patients at the hospitals are uninsured or underinsured. Given the costs of healthcare, many patients are reluctant to seek medical care, thus rendering their conditions more acute when they are admitted. Stroger is one of the busiest emergency rooms in the country and receives the most gunshot patients out of all of the hospitals in Chicago. Cook County Health’s rules require 35 emergency room nurses at Stroger Hospital, but the staffing is often five to ten nurses short of these guidelines. Nurse-to-patient ratios are a constant problem in hospitals nationally, and the situation has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment, as well as staffing during the pandemic have pushed healthcare workers to take more militant responses.
In negotiations with the unions, management at Cook County Health has been represented by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle who is also chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. Preckwinkle ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Chicago in 2019, backed by many progressive unions.
The strike by members of the NNOC and SEIU Local 73 comes at a time of militancy and struggle for many groupings of health care workers across the country. In Massachusetts, hundreds of nurses have been on strike at St. Vincent hospital in Worcester since early March – more than 160 days on the picket line.

Contract controversy at Amcor in Terre Haute

Following several rounds of negotiation, workers belonging to Workers United Local 1426 at the Amcor packaging factory in Terre Haute, Indiana learned early in July that their union leadership would be accepting a contract offer made by the company, despite the offer having been voted down by a majority of 59 percent.
Early offers made by the company were described by a representative of the workers as “so insulting we would have lost things we’ve bargained for the last 40 years in our contract.” The contract that has now been accepted provides for wage increases between 2.5 percent and 3 percent per year over three years. This is the first time, however, that a contract for workers at the facility will not include increases to their pension plan, and workers are also concerned by the inadequacy of the contract’s healthcare coverage.
The process the led to the implementation of the new contract despite the 59 percent “No” vote by the membership appears to have been the result of discussions between the local leadership of WU Local 1426 and the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United (CMRJB), which has jurisdiction over Local 1426. In a message to Local 1426 workers posted on YouTube, the manager of the CMRJB states that the local leadership had contacted the executive committee following the rejection of the company’s second contract offer. The executive committee stated that they would leave the decision to accept or reject the offer to local leadership, but advised them to accept the deal. Following an extension of the contract negotiation period and a $500 increase to the contract signing bonus, the local leadership voted to accept the offer by a margin of 7 to 3. According to the YouTube statement, the CMRJB did not want to act on anything other than a consensus of the local leadership; the three leadership members in the minority opposed to the document proceeded to resign from their positions, creating a “unanimous” consensus to accept the contract, after which the union’s leadership proceeded to officially accept the contract and instructed rank-and-file members to stand down.
Many rank-and-file union members are angry in the wake of this decision, although statements given to the press by a recently-resigned leadership member express hope that the union’s membership will reunite and continue to stand in solidarity in future disputes. The exact fate of at least one of the resigned leadership members also appears to be in bureaucratic limbo, as it is unclear whether or not his resignation was formally accepted, and whether the union will accept requests to recant the resignation.
A factor which was likely relevant to local leadership members’ decision to vote in favor of the contract is that Workers United only authorizes financial support payments to striking workers if the vote to authorize the strike is above the very high threshold of 80 percent. Thus, even though a majority of the workers were opposed to the contract, they would have received little to no support from the union had they chosen to continue fighting. Our solidarity goes out to the Local 1426 workers whose fight against the bosses has, it seems, been hampered by undemocratic processes within their union. As our fellow workers in the UAWD caucus have realized, the struggle to build workers’ power in the workplace will require workers to challenge bureaucratic structures within the labor movement and turn our unions into fighting institutions that can effectively take on the bosses and win the concessions that workers need.

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