On the Picket Line: A strike roundup

The current economic moment for global capitalism is a tumultuous one. Sky-rocketing inflation rates, declining and erratically fluctuating stock markets, renewed supply chain shocks brought about by COVID-19 lockdowns in China, and the Russian assault on Ukraine have led to widespread uncertainty as to the immediate trajectory of the economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates with the aim of slowing inflation. In the words of Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, their goal is to undo the favorable job market for workers and “get wages down and then get inflation down without having to slow the economy.”

In other words, the capitalist bankers at the helm of U.S. monetary policy are hoping to resolve economic problems that were not created by workers through undermining the living standards and opportunities of the working class. Within this context, some capitalists and economists have expressed concern about the possibility of a coming economic recession.

Despite this turmoil, the objective conditions for working-class struggle remain relatively favorable for our class. It’s still a “seller’s market” when it comes to the sale of our wage labor—and, much to the chagrin of the bosses, the “Great Resignation” continues apace, with voluntary resignation rates for workers in the United States remaining at unprecedented levels. Nonetheless, compared to last fall, overall strike activity has fallen, and employers have adopted an even harder line in many cases in their efforts to prevent workers from winning back more of what we produce. Still, many groups of workers are taking stands to fight for long-sought demands and to force the bosses to provide the wage increases that we need to stay afloat within the context of ever-rising inflation.

What follows are accounts of some of the strikes and struggles of note currently being waged by workers across the country. This roundup of workers’ struggles is not exhaustive, but rather focuses specifically on underreported struggles and emphasizes strikes waged by blue-collar and industrial workers. Not included in this roundup are some of the international struggles of significance waged by our fellow workers across the world. Nonetheless, important developments in the class struggle at the point of production are taking place in Mexico, China, and elsewhere.

Teamsters strike at FireKing in New Albany, Indiana

Some 86 members of Teamsters Local 89 have been on strike at the FireKing factory in New Albany, Ind., since May 9. The strike comes after workers at the plant unanimously voted down the company’s “last, best, and final” offer the previous week.

FireKing is a manufacturer and designer of fireproof cabinets, safes, and other storage equipment. According to a 2018 story from Louisville Business First, the company generates around $120 million in annual revenue. Late last year, FireKing was purchased by a subsidiary of the multibillion-dollar private equity company York Capital Management.

The workers’ key grievance in the strike centers around the company’s abysmal health-care plan. One veteran FireKing worker and Teamster explained to the Southern Indiana-based News and Tribune that the health insurance deductible costs are so high for FireKing workers “that you can pay for the insurance but you can’t afford to use it when you go to the hospital or whatever.” In addition, workers are also fighting for better wages. According to the union, pay rates at FireKing are below the area standard for manufacturing jobs.

The company has adopted a threatening posture in its dealings with workers and their union during the strike. As Local 89 business agent Jay Dennis put it, the company has carried out a “terror campaign” and “pulled out the union-busting stops” in an attempt to break the strike. The union has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB in response to FireKing’s conduct. For its part, the company has called the cops to the picket line on at least three occasions. They’ve sent what they refer to as a “cease and desist” letter to the union alleging that workers are illegally blocking scabs. Most repulsively of all, the company has canceled the workers’ health care.

Beyond this, management has issued statements proclaiming their aim to replace workers and fully restart production with the use of scabs and office personnel. As FireKing CEO Rick Mejia stated in a press release on May 17, “Using the multiple levers at our disposal, we are quickly bringing FireKing back to full production without an agreement with the union leadership.” Despite such pompous proclamations, the company’s scabbing operation appears to be ineffectual at present. For one thing, a number of scabs brought in by the company have apparently walked off the job. As Local 89 humorously explained in a Facebook post from May 24, “When FireKing told the media they’d be back to 100% production this week, they must have forgotten how numbers worked and added an extra zero or two.”

According to the union, not a single union member has crossed the picket line. Local 89 has also received support from the International union in carrying out this struggle. On May 17, International President Sean O’Brien and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman—who were elected last fall on a reform platform to head the union—visited New Albany and walked the picket line with the FireKing strikers. Notably, Zuckerman is the former longtime president of Local 89, which is based across the state line from New Albany in Louisville, Ky., and represents some 16,000 workers in manufacturing, logistics, and other industries. If the broader membership of Local 89 were mobilized en masse to support the strike at FireKing and join the picket line, this would undoubtedly help bolster the workers’ struggle.

To assist the strikers at FireKing, supporters can donate to an official GoFundMe account started by striking Teamster Robert Perkins, a five-year employee of the company. As Perkins explains, “We remain strong and committed to winning our strike, but we are asking for help from fellow Teamsters, other union members, and community supporters! Please support us in our fight by donating what you can to ensure our brothers and sisters on the picket line don’t go without.”

UAW strike continues at CNH Industrial in Iowa and Wisconsin

In late April, some 1100 workers organized through United Auto Workers Local 807 and Local 180 walked off the job at two CNH Industrial facilities in Burlington, Iowa and Racine, Wisconsin. A key issue of this strike is wages: currently, workers at the striking plants make $5.50 per hour less than those at non-union CNH Industrial plants, and workers are fighting to remove that gap. Other sticking points include vacation flexibility (workers are currently only allowed to take vacation time while the factory is on shutdown during the summer), retirement funds, and health-care benefits.

The company has cut health care to the workers, who are now being supported solely by the UAW Strike and Defense Fund, which is providing health care and $275 a week in strike pay to striking workers. The union was expecting a several-month-long strike to begin with, and as of May 18 union representatives have suggested that there’s still a long fight ahead.

Railroaders fight against inhuman new scheduling policy on the BNSF

Workers at one of the country’s two largest freight railway companies, BNSF Railway, are locked in a struggle with management over a draconian new attendance policy.

The cumulative effect of this company policy—what the company has termed “Hi-Viz”—is to force workers to be “on-call” 90 percent of the time, up from a previous rate of 75 percent. The new policy gives train workers only 30 points for their entire careers. Point deductions are based on the company’s assessment of demand on the missed day, and the number of points deducted can increase dramatically in certain contexts. In many cases, workers can be docked 25 points for missing a single shift. To regain some of those lost points, the railroad workers must be on call for work non-stop for two weeks, during which time workers are expected to report to the job within 90 minutes at any time after being notified by management. Even then, this only returns four points!

Under the new policy, workers are, to a great extent, “on call” to work their entire lives. While in theory workers can get exceptions for emergencies such as a death in the family or a personal day planned well in advance, in reality it is almost impossible to get such absences approved before the company’s automated scheduling system deducts points for missing a shift.

This system has forced engineers and conductors to work while exhausted and sick, as well as to miss important moments in their own lives, including family weddings, anniversaries, and kids’ birthdays. Besides requiring workers to essentially live their entire lives for their employer, the policy also forces them to come to work when they are too exhausted to do the job safely—thus increasing the risk of dangerous railroad accidents. “Hi-Viz” is no aberration either; it is in line with a whole series of recent cost-cutting initiatives and attacks on workers by major railroads at a time when, according to Labor Notes, railroad companies are registering historic profits. In short, the BNSF Railway is enriching its shareholders by working its employees to the bone.

The BNSF workers—some 17,000 of whom are represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Union (SMART) – have pushed back against this new policy during contract negotiations, which have been ongoing since 2019. Hundreds of workers have quit their jobs on the BNSF since the policy’s implementation earlier this year. Following the initial announcement of “Hi-Viz,” the unions took legal steps required by the onerous Railway Labor Act in order to go on strike over the policy. In response to this, however, BNSF management successfully sued the unions and got a judge to legally block a potential strike in January. Despite cosmetic changes announced to the policy by the company more recently, the unions have stated their intent to further fight against “Hi-Viz” and push for other improvements to their agreement with the company. The results of this struggle could have implications across this entire key industry.

Collins Aerospace locks out USW members in West Virginia

Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of the massive Raytheon Technologies, has locked out around 250 members of United Steelworkers Local 1449 at the company’s plant in Union, W.V.

Union members at the plant voted down a contract offer from the company on Saturday, May 21. When workers subsequently showed up for work early the following Monday morning, they were blocked from entering the plant, according to WVNS-TV. Since then, workers have been picketing outside the facility alongside U.S. Route 219.

In a statement, the USW has called the lockout illegal, declaring that “Collins Aerospace must be made accountable for its decision to hold our jobs, families and community hostage over issues that should be resolved through collective bargaining. Management needs to end this lockout immediately, return these workers to their jobs and resolve our differences at the table.”

Since 2020, Collins has been a part of Raytheon Technologies, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense manufacturers. According to company reports, Raytheon made some $3.86 billion in profit in 2021. Given escalating government defense spending and rising imperialist tensions and war, it’s likely that this figure will only increase in 2022.

This is the second lockout perpetrated by Collins against union workers thus far this year. In February, the company locked out nearly 300 members of UAW Local 128 at its wheels and brakes aerospace plant in Troy, Ohio. Key issues in that struggle centered around wages, pensions, and health insurance. The lockout in Troy came to an end on March 18 after workers voted to approve a new contract proposal.

USW workers at Chevron refinery in California approve new contract and end strike

On May 28, members of USW Local 5 at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., ratified an agreement with the company after striking for more than two months. (We covered this struggle back in April. Also, throughout the strike, members of Workers’ Voice in the Bay Area visited the strike line in Richmond on a number of occasions and picketed in solidarity with USW members.)

Workers narrowly approved the deal, which does not include the union’s key demand for a 5 percent wage increase above the 12 percent increase over four years negotiated in the USW’s national pattern agreement for refinery and petrochemical plant workers. Prior to the ratification of the contract, the USW filed charges with the NLRB asserting unfair bargaining practices and intimidation by the company; during the strike Chevron repeatedly called police to report to the facility and intimidate striking workers, to the point that they ran out of Richmond officers willing to respond and resorted to calling in police from neighboring San Pablo.

According to Reuters, the company was able to keep the refinery running during the strike with managers and supervisors flown in from other locations across the country. Just over 10 percent of the 500 workers represented by the USW at the refinery crossed the picket line. Some building trades members that do not belong to the USW also crossed the line during the dispute.

The isolation of this strike to just one refinery was central to its lackluster outcome, as the company likely would not have been able to maintain production levels with managerial staff and scabs if additional locations had joined the strike. When the Richmond workers initially hit the picket line back in March, they expressed hope that they’d soon be joined by members of USW Local 675 at the Chevron refinery in El Segundo, California in the Los Angeles area. Workers at that facility, however, approved the company’s contract offer on March 23 and stayed on the job. In Richmond, the union appears to have now accepted a contract that does not satisfy the demands that led them to take strike action in the first place.

This said, the overwhelming majority of USW workers at Chevron in Richmond can take pride in having held the line for more than two months. These workers have four years to build the fight at Chevron and forge connections with other union locals and workers before the next time the USW’s oil pattern bargaining agreement expires in 2026.

Photo: A picket line by workers at Collins Aerospace in West Virginia. (Jenny Harnish / The Register-Herald)

Leave a Reply