After a years-long struggle culminating in a militant three-week strike from November 20 to December 16, the members of UE Local 279 at Weir Valves and Controls, have reached a settlement with their employer which includes the resolution of many outstanding disputes and the ratification of a new contract. Members ratified the settlement on March 6. The new three-year contract provides wage increases of 1.5 percent, 2 percent and 2.5 percent and stops the company’s attempt to roll back several contractual protections. In addition the settlement resolves other outstanding issues that remained when the strike ended.
Local President Kevin McPherson says money was not the main issue in the strike. “It was more about what we held off, because what we went on strike over was the damaging language on seniority and fair treatment on the shop floor, and overtime distribution, and they wanted to be able to use temps” even during a layoff. When the company backed off these demands, the local decided to end the strike, but other issues remained in dispute. “It was stuff like paid personal days for the other half of the shop that didn’t have it,” says McPherson, as well as unfair distribution of the back pay award from an arbitration the union had earlier won over healthcare premiums. “We cleaned up some other things. They were trying to impose dual operation without additional pay. Now we’re bargaining the additional pay for dual operations.”
The troubles that led to the strike began three years ago when the workers, who manufacture industrial and nuclear valves for a multinational corporation based in Britain, faced new management with a new attitude. The formerly peaceful workplace became a scene of conflict as management picked fights with the union leadership and members at every turn.
Members mobilized and began fighting back, not simply through the grievance procedure, but through militant shop floor action. UE Field Organizer Omar el-Malah, who assists the local, recalls a stewards training for Weir workers scheduled a couple of years ago, with Northeast Region President Peter Knowlton. "Almost a dozen guys showed up from a workforce of about 50, all in matching UE T-shirts. That's one of the first indications I had this group was very self-organized." He says that when the training session got past the basics of writing and processing grievances and got into the tactics of concerted workplace struggle, “the teachers became the students” as the members, “schooled us on all the tactics they'd been using on the shop floor to fight against management attacks."
By the time the contract expired in mid-November of 2014, the UE membership and its committee already had a couple years of experience fighting the boss as a group and was well-positioned for the strike that ensued.
STRIKING WITH STRATEGY
McPherson makes it clear that the strike was not launched in unthinking anger, but as a result of careful strategizing. “It is absolutely imperative for any union whenever they’re coming up to negotiations. We spent a lot of time identifying what tools to use, not only at the table negotiating, but outside and after, if things fell apart, could we use a strike. So going into negotiations, from day one, we knew that was one tool we had to go back on.” He says the union leadership asked themselves additional questions: “If we go on strike, what’s the company’s reaction going to be and how long can they sustain, how long can we sustain? We took a lot of time planning and engineering the possibility of a strike. It was managed so well because we knew it was not necessarily inevitable, but we wanted to go at it as if it was inevitable. So we had it pretty well planned out.”
That planning included looking at the economics of the strike, even though the issues involved were not mainly economic. “We also knew what it was going to cost us to be on strike, and what we needed to win to recoup those losses. What we bargained will pay us back in 2 ½ years for the money we lost,” says McPherson.
“We held everybody to a strict code of conduct” on the picket line, says McPherson. “It helped up win over” the office people and others who were still working, and win their sympathy. “We sang Christmas carols for them during their lunch, and handed out flyers to them as they’re driving by” to explain the union’s position. He says the union’s entire plan worked well. “Nobody got arrested, nothing go ugly, and we shut the plant down,” and part of the union’s planning was how to cut off all routes of supply and shipping for the plant. “We prepared, we called all our buddies, we called in all our favors, and we turned away 90 percent of the trucks.” He added, “This was the longest, most effective strike that a Weir company has endured in the history of Weir.”
Negotiations continued during the strike, and the company dropped its demands on temp workers and overtime. The company then unilaterally imposed its final offer, and while there were concerns about whether this was done legally, the local concluded that since two of the major strike issues were now off the table, they would return to work. The members, who had voted unanimously to go on strike, also voted unanimously to return to work.
But they were under no illusions that the fight was over, so they returned to work without a contract, keeping all options open as they pushed to resolve all the remaining issues. As expected, bosses stirred up new problems starting the day workers returned. The union prepared to file charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and members braced themselves to possibly go back on strike over the unfair labor practices. The local was prepared for its long fight to go on much longer.
But then the cooler and wiser heads prevailed within Weir's management structure who concluded that it was time to bring some industrial peace to the factory. Once the company decided to really negotiate, its representatives and the union committee were able to work out an agreement that settled the remaining issues. In addition to the contract and other issues that the parties resolved through negotiations, at the time of the settlement there were also some changes in management personnel that the union is pleased about.
The union bargaining committee consisted of Kevin McPherson, Chief Steward Jason Gallant, and Jason Dobson, assisted by Field Organizer Omar el-Malah.