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Vol. 75/No. 29      August 8, 2011

Iowa lockout ends: union
fought, came out stronger
(front page)
KEOKUK, Iowa—Workers locked out by grain processor Roquette America voted July 23 to accept a contract offer by the company and will be returning to work after a 10-month battle.

The company locked out 240 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 48G in September 2010 after workers rejected the bosses’ “last, best, and final” offer.

Some 80 percent of the membership turned out to vote on the five-year contract, which, according to local president Steve Underwood, was approved by a narrow margin. The day before workers had rejected an offer that included a clause that would have lowered the pay grade for some 50 workers.

The Militant spoke to workers during the two days of voting, both those who voted for and against.

“As a union, we’ve gotten stronger,” said Charlie Hayner, a 15-year employee. “Those who have been on the picket line discussing things have gotten to know each other better.”

Hayner described the solidarity workers received and the impression it has made on him. For example, he said, his six children received Christmas gifts donated by others last winter. “It’s opened my eyes. I’m definitely going to support other unions in the future.”

“I thought [the contract] was as good as we’d see,” said one worker, who asked that his name not be used, as he left the Labor Temple following the July 23 vote. A number of others expressed similar sentiments.

Jason White, a young worker who started at Roquette after getting out of the military in 2008, was among those opposed to the offer. “Corporations think they can push people around,” he said. “No way I’ll live my life like this.”

“We have to go back together and keep fighting,” said Buddy Howard, a strike leader and picket line organizer. “We got support from other unions and the community, and we have to take part in other struggles to better the lot of all workers.”

Local 48G members are scheduled to return to work in August.

After locking workers out Sept. 28, 2010, Roquette America hired temporary replacement workers, including some from LB&F, Inc., an Ohio-based company that specializes in providing strikebreakers. Picket lines went up immediately and were maintained for the duration. Three union members crossed the picket line when the lockout began, but the other 237 remained firm.

Three months into the lockout, Roquette presented a contract proposal that, for the first time, included a clause allowing the company to unilaterally subcontract or eliminate jobs. Workers snubbed the offer, refusing even to vote on it. The proposal was dropped from the latest offer, but Roquette threatened to revive it if the latest offer wasn’t approved by 5:00 p.m. July 23.

Signs reading “We support Local 48G” are common on lawns of houses and in windows of small businesses throughout the area.

The local organized solidarity rallies in October and November 2010 and March 2011, as well as an expanded picket line in April. Local residents organized a food pantry. Members of the United Steelworkers (USW), United Food and Commercial Workers, United Auto Workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and others made contributions and joined picket lines.

Members of Local 48G reached out with their fight, speaking to workers in the region, and bringing solidarity to other workers in struggle. They joined labor rallies of public workers resisting government assaults on their unions in Madison, Wisconsin, and Des Moines, Iowa. They went to Illinois to back USW-organized workers locked out by Honeywell in Metropolis and members of Teamsters Local 627 locked out at the Emerald Performance Materials chemical plant in Henry.

According to Underwood, the new contract includes a $2 per hour wage cut for new hires, instead of Roquette’s original demand of a $4 reduction. The probationary period has been increased from 480 hours before the lockout to 680 hours with the option of extending it by 240 hours. The company’s September offer included a 920-hour probationary period for all new hires. Like previous company offers, the contract raises workers’ heath-care payments.

“They can’t hurt me anymore, but I have two sons that might want to work here someday and I’d like to see them make a decent living and have union backing,” said Roberta Ludwick, who worked at the plant for 32 years and became eligible for retirement during the lockout. After the vote Jim McGhghy, a worker with 31 years at the plant, said, “Same job, same pay, that’s what I was fighting for.”

The Roquette bosses “didn’t think we had the morale to stand together, and they underestimated small-town America. They look at us like a bunch of dumb hicks.” said Wade Kehler, a 51-year-old mill operator.

“I’m proud of this group. We’re stronger than anyone ever thought we could be,” said operator Cindy Runge.

During the two days of deliberation, union members bought eight subscriptions to the Militant—five of them renewals—a dozen single copies of the paper, and a copy of Teamster Rebellion.

Frank Forrestal contributed to this article.
Related articles:
A leader of fight against Iowa lockout thanks ‘Militant’
Illinois: Locked-out Honeywell workers to vote on contract
Striking building workers rally in Queens, N.Y.
Bombardier layoffs met by British nationalist demagogy  
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