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Vol. 75/No. 47      December 26, 2011

Pa. Steelworkers return to
jobs with heads held high
LANCASTER, Pa.—Workers at the Armstrong World Industries plant in nearby Marietta voted Dec. 9 to accept a contract proposal. The plant, one of the company’s 31 factories worldwide, makes ceiling tiles.

The 260 workers, including some 220 organized by United Steelworkers Local 285/441, were locked out July 17 after voting down a concession contract.

For five months the workers organized a spirited 24/7 picket line at the plant gate. They garnered solidarity from area workers and farmers and joined Verizon picket lines. In September the union organized a mass rally at Armstrong’s corporate headquarters here.

Almost all Armstrong workers speaking with the Militant, both before and after the vote, expressed displeasure with the new contract, which is similar to the “take it or leave it” proposal they rejected in September.

“I don’t think anybody’s happy. This is the worst contract I’ve seen in 28 years at Armstrong,” said Barry Groff, a production worker. “But we put up a good fight and I’m proud of our solidarity.”

“We stood together,” said Shannon McAlexander. “In the meeting I told everyone how proud I was of their effort.”

“We know this is a bad contract, but our backs are up against the wall,” said Brian Wilson, a line coordinator for the union’s picket line.

Wilson explained that in the Dec. 6 negotiating session, which included a federal mediator, the company said they were ending the lockout. Workers would be brought back under the old contract, but then after a brief period, a “bargaining impasse” would be declared and the company would implement the new pact. Armstrong declared they would hire permanent replacements and no longer recognize the union if the workers went on strike at that point.

Wilson also said they lost some leverage when their “coalition fell apart.” During the lockout, workers at three Armstrong plants—in Lancaster, Macon, Ga., and Pensacola, Fla.—approved concession contracts.

Former locked-out worker Dan Walters said he was most bothered by how Armstrong and other companies are leveraging the economic crisis to hire scabs for little wages and no benefits.

The three-year agreement includes an annual wage increase of 2.5 percent, cuts health insurance benefits from a 90/10 plan to an 80/20 plan, and replaces company pensions with a 401(k) plan for all new hires, reported Chuck Davis, a representative of USW Local 285/441. Armstrong had retracted any signing bonus but then added a $1,500 over 18 months “performance incentive” to ramp up productivity.

Workers have been on eight-hour shifts, but after a “transition period,” Armstrong will implement 12-hour rotating shifts, with a 30-minute mealtime and two 15-minute breaks. This will include a mandatory “on call” system where workers will be called on their days off as needed.

Production worker Cindy Staples said that “during the ‘transition period,’” which she thought would last until spring, “the company can pretty much put us where they want us.”

“Some of the bigger concessions involve shop floor issues like seniority, bidding and overtime,” Jim Shanley, USW Local 285/441 recording secretary, told the Militant. The union pushed back one concession, where the company would have recognized no grievances for the first 90 days workers were back in the plant.

Workers will begin their return to the factory Jan. 9, and “should all be back by Jan. 25,” according to Tom Jones, a USW District 10 representative. But Armstrong does not have to implement their return by seniority, and plans to keep some replacement workers hired during the lockout.

After the vote, Walters pointed to his sleeve and said, “The company wanted to show us their ‘stripes.’ But we showed them ours. They had better treat us like the human beings that we are.”

“When we go back in, we have to look out for one another now,” said another worker Tom Houser.
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Rally slams Manitowoc Cranes’ union busting
Striker: ‘If we don’t stop it here, it will spread’
1,700 McGill Univ. strikers win, now ‘together, stronger’
Illinois miners win court ruling in fight for union
Bosses get off easy in 2010 death of 29 W.Va. miners
Minn. tank trailer workers strike against ‘outsourcing’
Licorice workers in fight ‘for long haul’
Striking limestone workers receive solidarity
Union power key to defend life and limb
‘Keep covering our struggles’  
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