Stepan Workers' Fightback Strengthens Union, Increases Wages

December 8, 2007

UE Local 1421 members faced a very tough battle in their latest contract negotiations with chemical manufacturer Stepan, and they did not come out of the fight unscathed. But with more membership involvement than ever, they made some important gains and minimized the damage the company was able to inflict.

Making their situation more difficult was the fact that the California UE Stepan members were the last to negotiate after other unions in the company had already been battered into accepting pension freezes, and the other shops had worse health insurance.

Before the negotiations even started, UE members and their families let the company know where they stood by wearing UE buttons to the company’s annual shop picnic at Knott’s Berry Farm. The membership mobilization during negotiations included solidarity practice picketing, for which Stepan workers were joined by UE members from the other Local 1421 shops, Graham Packaging and Industrial Alloys. Members leafleted truckers, railroad workers and vendors entering the plant with information about the issues they were fighting.

At the bargaining table the union presented to the company solidarity petitions signed by Stepan workers at other plants – UE Local 155 is Fieldsboro, NJ and Teamsters Local 179 members in Millsdale, IL. They also gave the company petitions signed by the families of Anaheim Stepan workers and letters from workers’ spouses. The union hung these documents on the walls of the conference room where bargaining took place – along with artwork in support of the union’s fight by the young children of members.

Bargaining stretched over a month with 10 bargaining sessions, culminating in the company’s final offer on November 30. Given what they were up against, the workers did better than might have been expected, but the contract was only ratified by a narrow margin.

The new contract is a three-year agreement with wage increases of 3 percent each year. The existing healthcare plan will remain in place with no increase in employee premium contributions through March 31, 2008. After that, Anaheim members will be under the same health plan as Millsdale, Fieldsboro and non-union employees – which has higher deductibles and co-pays than the existing Anaheim plan – and will be subject to the same increases in employee contributions, up to a maximum of 20 percent. To offset some of the increased costs to employees, the company will contribute a total of $600 to each current employee’s flex spending account, in $200 increments each April 1 during the term of the contract.

While the pension will be frozen effective December 31, 2007, the pension multiplier was increased prior to the freeze to $41 per month per year of service, and all current employees were credited with one additional year of pension service. The company agreed to extend vesting in the pension plan to all current employees with less than five years’ seniority, so that the younger workers will be entitled to at least a minimal pension. The company will contribute 4 percent of each employee’s base wages to their 401(k) account, and also agreed to make a supplemental contribution totaling $4,500 (in three installments) to the 401(k) savings plan of each current employee.

The union committee fought hard to beat back a company push for two-tier benefits and other concessions. They defeated company attempts to eliminate bumping rights, pay less than the full job rate to workers as soon as they are promoted to a higher-rated job, and to increase the pay gap between probationary and senior workers. Instead, the new contract reduces that probationary pay gap from 50 to 25 cents. The company tried to eliminate the $100 perfect attendance bonus, but UE members instead increased the bonus to $110 per month.

The new contract increases the number of sick days per year from two to three. The shoe allowance was increased from $225 to $250, and the company agreed to provide each employee one jacket per year, in addition to work shirts and pants. The shift differential for evening shift was increased to $1.00 an hour, and for midnight shift to $1.10. The swing shift premium is increased from $1.75 to $2.50 per hour, and from $4.25 to $5.00 for Sundays. All hours worked over four on the workers’ seventh consecutive workday will be paid double-time. The new contract also improves other provisions including funeral leave, severance pay and the grievance procedure.

"I've been at Stepan just over three years," said Pablo Martinez, the most junior member of the bargaining committee. "I was in another union, the Teamsters, for 10 years. We never knew anything about how our contract was negotiated, and they never even asked me to vote on anything. This was totally new and different." Pablo added, "The members supported us very well, as did the other UE shops here, plus Stepan workers in Millsvale and Fieldsboro. It was a good experience for me."

The union bargaining committee consisted of Local 1421 President Bryan Martindale, Keith Mills and Pablo Martinez, assisted by International Rep. Leanna Noble.

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