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Militant Membership Beats Concessions, Wins “Great Contract” at Kennametal

12 July, 2017

In a classic UE battle, members of Local 274 for three months militantly fought against concession demands by their employer, Kennametal. On June 22, the local bargaining committee signed a tentative agreement for a new two-year agreement. The following day, the 74 members unanimously ratified it. Local President Shawn Coates calls it “a great contract with good benefits and good wage increases.”

Bargaining began March, and the two sides met every day at the bargaining table for two solid weeks. But with the company refusing to abandon its concessionary proposals, and with the union refusing to go backwards, the initial talks went nowhere. The company issued what it called its “last, best and final offer,” and the union leaders and members prepared for a siege.

Members began picketing the plant once or twice a week. The shop is known historically as Greenfield Tap & Die, and the members perform skilled labor to produce precision industrial products. The struggle on the shop floor was waged during every working hour, and the company soon began complaining that productivity was down.

The union filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). One was for the company unlawfully contracting out work. The other hit the company for unilaterally publicizing its “last, best and final offer” with the false claim that the union was calling for a vote on the offer.

In its false publicity about its offer, the company was trying to drive a wedge between the tier 1 and tier 2 workers. Tiers had been imposed by the company in 2010, and one of the union’s top priorities in these negotiations was eliminating the disparities among members in wages and benefits. All the member knew that’s what they were fighting for, so the company’s attempt to create division failed.  

Greenfield is a “UE town” where the union has had a strong presence for many decades, representing, in addition to Kennametal workers, many public employees and bus drivers. Historically Local 274 also represented other factories in the Greenfield area that are now closed, but the union’s roots remain deep. So the support of the community was strong. Letters to editor appeared frequently in the newspaper, defending the union’s position.

The local held two large rallies during the contract fight. “We had support from other unions in Franklin County and Greenfield, unions up in Vermont, New Hampshire, and from Connecticut,” says Shawn Coates. UE locals from around the Northeast Region traveled to a very large rally on May 11 which also included the Massachusetts Nurses Association and unionists from around the state mobilized by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, Greenfield community members, and even school kids.  “We got good coverage in the newspapers,” says Coates. “That helped push the company to come back to the table and bargain in good faith.”

The company eventually bowed to the pressure and the persistence of the membership.

The union got virtually all of the company’s concession demands off the table. Workers won significant general wage increases in each year of the contract, ranging from $2.25 to $3.25, weighted toward the lower tier to shrink the wage gap. The union didn’t succeed in completely wiping out the tiers, but narrowed the gap from around $1 to between 30 and 40 cents. The new contract also includes an additional sick day for tier 2 workers, and equal vacation schedules for all, eliminating two other disparities.

The union beat back the company’s strong effort to place the members under its high-deductible, poor-coverage “flex plan” that it has imposed on all of its other facilities in the country. The Greenfield workers will continue to be covered by their own better health plan. In contract language, the union improved the grievance procedure and added “no lockout” language which had been strangely absent from the contract for all these decades.

Coates credits the members with this win. “The vast majority of the members really stuck together. That gives you some push. Like everybody says, we’re a strong union.” While very pleased with the victory, the local president takes nothing for granted about the future. “We’ll be in this fight again in two years.”

The union bargaining committee was President Shawn Coates, Vice Chair Kevin Manion, Chief Steward Loren Bradshaw, Secretary Fred Williams, Treasurer Jason McGrath, and Lead Board Member James Flynn. They were assisted by UE International Rep Chad McGinniss.  A few days after the contract was settled, the union was back on a picket line in Greenfield, this time in support of locked-out union nurses.