Right from the beginning of negotiations with UE Local 718, which represents the maintenance workers at TreeHouse Foods, management demanded concessions. But a seasoned bargaining committee, an informed membership, and solidarity from the other UE local in the plant resulted in a solid new contract with gains instead.
The concessionary proposals management put on the table included taking maintenance work out of the bargaining unit, doing away with the defined benefit pension plan, eliminating the 100% paid generic drug plan, increasing monthly health insurance premiums, reducing the eye care allowance by 50%, and eliminating all past practices, policies, rules and settlements. They also wanted the local to give up the right to bargain work schedules.
The employer proposed doubling the probationary period from 90 to 180 days and eliminating automatic increases in the shift premium by changing it from a percentage to a flat rate. They wanted to prevent members from working overtime in other departments, lengthen the time a person could cancel overtime, and get rid of a rule that had ended favoritism in overtime. Management also proposed to limit employee bidding to once per year, impose a $3/hour reduction in pay for the first six months if an employee does bid, and require people bidding into the electronics and machine shop to have taken a test within the previous six months.
The union bargaining committee took a firm stand against all of these concessions. Local 718 Chief Steward Jim Gill calculated that the work the company wanted to take out of the bargaining unit would cost each member about $10,000 in overtime pay, and told the company that he wasn’t trading $10,000 for a few pennies on the company’s economic proposal. The bargaining committee also held their ground and remained united on protecting the defined benefit pension plan, even though not all members of the local, and only half of the members of the bargaining committee, have the defined benefit pension. Ralston, the owner when UE organized the plant, had frozen the pension plan in 2004 and anyone hired after that was put into a 401(k).
The local leadership kept the members informed, holding regular meetings to keep them up to date and giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions to management and make it clear that management’s proposals would provoke a strike if they didn’t back off. The bargaining committee also maintained regular communication with UE Local 777, which represents production workers in the plant, as management’s demand for eliminating the defined benefit pension plan and taking maintenance work out of the bargaining unit would have a direct impact on their members. Local 777’s leadership held a meeting with local management and told them they didn’t like the proposals being presented by the employer to Local 718, and that they would back Local 718 members “100 percent.”
The new contract includes no increases in the percentage of monthly insurance contributions, and maintains the 100% generic drug coverage and eye care. No jobs will be taken out of the bargaining unit and the defined benefit pension plan remains in place, as do all of the other benefits the company tried to take from Local 718 members.
The settlement includes wage gains of 1.5 percent the first year, 2 percent the second and third years, and a skilled trades wage adjustment of 30 cents in the third year. The new contract clarifies funeral leave pay, guaranteeing paid work days off and correcting a practice an unreasonable human resources manager had been using to deny paid funeral leave. Brother and sister were added to the immediate family members covered for paid funeral leave.
The company now cannot test employees bidding into the electronics and machinist departments more than once in 5½ years. The local won language that guarantees that the employer has to allow equal numbers of employees off for daily and weekly vacations in each maintenance department. The boot allowance was increased to $180 per contract year and the local won another tardy day they could use to avoid penalization for being late.
In the previous contract, the union had won a separation incentive of $1200 or a year of health insurance paid through COBRA. The incentive was available for retirees whose combined age and years of service totalled 95. The new contract reduces the required total to 90, and four or five members will have the option to retire early with insurance.
At the ratification meeting on Monday, May 14, Local 718 President Shawn Stebelton thanked the members of Local 718 for their support of the bargaining committee, and Local 777 for their support and solidarity. He also recognized the dedication of retired Local 718 president Jeff Niceswanger and retired Local 777 Chief Steward Alice Dille, who volunteered to take notes for the bargaining committee.
The bargaining committee consisted of President Shawn Stebelton, Chief Steward Jim Gill, Vice President Pete Nelson, Jeff Kunkle and Shawn Carpenter. They were assisted by International Representative Dennis Painter.