UE Locals 625 and 626 Draw a Line in the Sand

January 7, 2020

After running a militant contract campaign which included a one-day strike of their employer, ABB, UE Locals 625 and 626 ratified a three-year agreement on December 21. The vote was held in a crowded room of union members at the American Legion in Mt. Pleasant. The workers, who build high-quality circuit breakers and high-voltage equipment at locations in Greensburg and Mt. Pleasant, had been working without a contract for seven weeks.

The new agreement includes three-percent wage increases each year. Perhaps the biggest win is in healthcare, where employee premiums will revert to their 2016 costs for the duration of the contract, resulting in an eleven-percent reduction compared with 2019 rates. Additional employer contributions will be made to workers’ medical savings accounts to offset out-of-pocket costs: over the life of the agreement those contributions will total $1,900 for those on the HRA (low-deductible) plan and $3,100 for those on the HSA (high-deductible) plan. “Add-ons” to safety prescription glasses will now be covered where medically necessary, and new language has been added to the contract requiring the company to bargain with the union over any significant increases to the costs of the medical plans, and allowing the union to strike if necessary.

Bereavement leave will now cover domestic partners, and members will now have five paid days of parental and adoption leave. The agreement improves personal time and allows greater flexibility in its use. The shift differential will double to $1.00/hour, the yearly shoe allowance will increase by $30 per year, and members will receive a $500 signing bonus. For production workers, the probationary pay will increase by $2.50 per hour and the scale to top rate will be shortened from four years to three years.

The locals also secured language that will fully protect their pension as ABB’s Power Grids Division transitions to its new owners, Hitachi, in 2020.

ABB wanted major concessions at the bargaining table, including the right to use temp workers and to alter the standard Monday through Friday work week. The locals successfully fought back all company takeaways.

Preparing for the Contract Expiration

“During membership meetings leading up to bargaining, the body (rank-and-file) really stressed the link between the committee doing the bargaining and the members on the shop floor. The committee and executive board set up a phone tree to send updates after every bargaining session. We made sure leaflets on key bargaining issues were passed out. We held regular meetings during the process… All this helped set the foundation to mobilize our members for action,” said Local 625 President Gary Williams.

As October bargaining approached, the local surveyed its members on what changes they wanted in the contract. The responses overwhelmingly focused on healthcare, so the committee created a healthcare-specific questionnaire to gather more focused information. The questionnaire revealed that many workers were in severe medical debt, and many others avoided using the insurance because they couldn’t afford the deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. “We made sure we took the extra step to listen to our members and draft proposals to reflect their needs. Even though we work alongside these people every day, it was shocking how our brothers and sisters were really hurting from the insurance,” noted Local 625 Vice President Mark Shaffer.

UE Local 625 member Sharon Johnston called the ABB healthcare plan “The Don’t Get Sick Plan,” because of the high out-of-pocket expenses. “I’d like to go to the dermatologist because my father had cancer,” said Johnston, but “that’s a six-hundred dollar bill there. I can’t afford that, that’s my paycheck.” Johnston and other ABB workers spoke out about the company’s healthcare plan during the campaign.

“Demands meetings” were also held where members openly discussed and debated what should be negotiated, and the union’s initial proposals were presented to the membership for approval before bargaining started. “We are part of a member-run union here. The membership told us what they wanted, and that was what we acted upon and fought for,” said Local 625 Recording Secretary Pat Pelar.

Cake with a UE logo and "Local 625"

Stickers with slogans like “No Temps Ever” (referencing a company proposal) were worn during negotiations, along with “union strong” bracelets and union “solidarity” shirts. Members baked UE-themed cookies and cakes to enjoy during work breaks over conversations about negotiations.

The locals ran a campaign based on escalating actions as bargaining proceeded. Workers held meetings and rallies in the parking lot during breaks and between shifts. As Local 625 Chief Steward Tim Komisak explained, “eventually, it got to the point where we would be at the bargaining table, and we would get a text message with photos from this meeting or that rally. A lot of that stuff was not initiated by the committee — the members just started doing it on their own. That was a good feeling.”

Photo of a "Burn List" for a CD, starting with "We're Not Gonna Take It"

UE members adopted the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as the theme song of their campaign, and burned CDs featuring that song, along with other labor- and resistance-themed songs, that were played at meetings, rallies and picket lines.

Outreach, both locally and regionally, was also important to the campaign. Pelar and Johnston spent their Labor Day weekend at the Westmoreland County Labor Festival’s “union booth” to speak with community members about their upcoming negotiations. As Pelar described, “just to be able to talk with other workers and members of the community about worker issues was so worthwhile. You find common threads of experiences at the workplace affecting everyone.”

Days before the contract expired, Komisak and Shaffer addressed a packed room at  the Westmoreland County AFL-CIO’s annual banquet at Greensburg’s landmark “Lakeview” banquet hall, to inform the local labor community about their negotiations. “The support we got from the Western PA AFL-CIO throughout the campaign was really helpful. Rosann Barker, Walter Geiger, and Harriet Ellenberger were all very supportive,” said Williams.

Workers at ABB’s facilities in Crystal Springs, Mississippi (members of IUE-CWA Local 83799) and Jefferson City, Missouri (members of UAW Local 2379) also supported the UE locals’ fight, and wore stickers and sent letters to the company expressing their solidarity with the workers in Western Pennsylvania.

In another display of unity, membership meetings during bargaining were held on the weekend at the request of the rank-and-file to allow for both first and second shifts to attend and make decisions collectively. On October 27, the Sunday prior to the contract expiration, the members voted to authorize the bargaining committee to call a strike if necessary. Picket duties for all gates at both the Greensburg and Mt. Pleasant plants were established and distributed at the meeting.

The members of UE Local 625 recorded a video message for the company during the meeting, letting the company know that the union was willing to do “whatever it takes” to secure a fair contract. Members also wrote messages to the company, such as “Cancer is Not Cheap” on butcher paper which was taped in front of the committee’s bargaining table the following day for the company’s negotiators to see.

Local 625 committee members sitting behind a table with butcher paper filled with messages to the company

On Tuesday October 29, two days before the expiration of their contract, the locals held “practice pickets,” at the main entrance of the Mt. Pleasant plant.

Contract talks hit a wall the night of October 31, as the company continued to demand the right to change the health insurance plan design during the contract without bargaining, and key issues like retirement security remained unsettled. “There were just too many issues on healthcare and the pension that needed to be cleared up before a settlement could be reached. This was serious stuff that we needed to take care of for our membership,” said Komisak.

The Strike

UE members picketing at dawn in front of a neon-lit "ABB" sign

“Everyone was continually told throughout our daily communications and regular meetings to be prepared for all possible scenarios. As the clock approached midnight on the 31st, we made the decision. When we called the 24-hour warning strike, we were well-organized so that people knew where they were supposed to be and got there,” reflected Shaffer.

The last recorded strike of the local was a three-day strike in 2001. Continuing its recent practices of handling labor disputes, the company posted ads in the paper for scabs and brought heaps of “security.”

“The company brought all of this security for no reason. Everyone was thinking the same thing — why is this company I work for spending money on security and running ads in the paper instead of investing in the healthcare of its workers?” commented Komisak. "That did not feel fair. If it was an attempt to intimidate, well, that didn’t work either.”

The picket lines were well-covered and burn barrels and wood were delivered to the gates. UE Local 610 Vice President Jeff Kohler, Business Agent Rob Mickinak, and Assistant Chief Steward Artie Sinclair, along with retired Local 610 leaders Kent Buchholz and Charlie McCollester brought fresh donuts and walked the picket lines. AFL-CIO Westmoreland County Labor Council President Walter Geiger came to the gates and provided water. Eastern Region Office Manager Pat McCaughtry and UE General Counsel Irene Thomas came to the lines with warm gloves and hot coffee for the striking workers.

“All members sure supported each other — it was very inspirational,” said Local 626 President John Nemetz.

UE members with picket signs reading "UE 625 & 626 on Unfair Labor Practice Strike"

After the Strike

The bargaining committee was disappointed but not shocked when, the Monday following the one-day strike, the company presented a “final offer” with the condition that if not ratified two days later, it would regress its proposal on wages and renege on its previous offer to add money to workers’ medical savings plans.

“We were not going to be bullied or intimidated by the company, or bring back a contract that could jeopardize the retirement security of our members, or allow the company the right to increase our health costs with no recourse by the union,” remarked Williams.

UE member holding a sign saying "No Backwards Bargaining" with the letters and word "Bargaining" written backwards

Following the strike, rank-and-file members made their displeasure with management’s arrogance known in various ways in the shop. On November 14, members of UE Locals 625 and 626 took their fight for a fair contract to an ABB corporate office in Pittsburgh with a spirited informational picket and rally.

Williams and Pelar updated UE members and supporters on negotiations, including the company’s backwards bargaining. The leaders reiterated the resolve of the committee and locals to push forward with conviction.

UE General President Carl Rosen, Eastern Region President Donna Morgan, Western Region President Charlene Winchell, and Local 610 President Antwon Gibson all addressed the rally, as did Walter Geiger, president of the Greater Westmoreland County Labor Council, and State Representative Summer Lee. Local singer and retired steelworker Mike Stout energized the crowd with song.

The Local 625 and 626 members were also joined by UE Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker, members of Locals 610 and 667, and allies from various unions and community organizations, many of them mobilized by Pittsburgh United and the Bernie Sanders campaign, who sent out an email to their list urging all Sanders supporters in the area to join the picket line.

Local 625 member Lamont Rogers remarked after the ratification vote, “Going to the rally, I learned a lot…if another union is in a fight, I want to be there for them just like they were there for us.” Laughing, Rogers remembers his favorite part — Mike Stout’s inspired singing. “He had me singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ the next day at the plant!”

In a failed attempt to convince the workers that the company was within its legal right to regress in its proposals, the company mailed letters to their homes pleading their case. “The company had been mailing us letters to our homes. It got to the point where the last letter we received about the backwards bargaining, we all brought the letters to work and handed them back to the company’s HR. It felt like they were trying to bargain with everyone at their home by mailing these letters. The members made it clear that our committee was representing them and we would not be undercut by the company trying to bargain around the committee,” Williams commented.

A good deal of the bargaining issues remaining after the strike centered around a complicating factor: Hitachi’s impending acquisition of ABB’s Power Grids Division. The union demanded and finally secured contract language safeguarding the pension and recognizing years of service during the acquisition by Hitachi of the Power Grids Division, where a “mirror pension” will be assumed by the new company. Further documentation was provided to the union assuring its members of Hitachi’s commitment to assume the existing contracts and new, mirror pension.

With the company also putting the wage increases and medical savings plan money back on the table, agreeing to retro pay dating back to November 1, along with the union getting more security on health insurance and the right to negotiate and strike over increases, the parties had the framework of a tentative agreement.

Two UE members embracing at the ratification meeting

“Our committee did a fantastic job and looked out for all members,” said proud Local 625 member Gretchen Kelly following ratification.

“Solidarity was demonstrated by its true meaning, ‘unity,’ by UE Locals 625 and 626 against a Fortune 500 Company in ABB,” said Local 625 Financial Secretary Jimmy Martino, echoing a common theme throughout the campaign.

“All the hard work from the committee and members paid off to get a fair contract. Now the key is to build from this and continue working with the other locals in solidarity. If we need to resort to similar mobilization of our members in order to achieve fairness and decency at the workplace, we will do so with this experience under our belt,” summarized Williams.

About a week before negotiations, Pelar went with a UE delegation to visit UAW strikers at picket lines in Parma and Lordstown, Ohio during the GM strike. Reflecting on her experience, Pelar commented, “yes it was inspiring and all of that, but talking with the strikers… Those workers felt they were part of something bigger. In our own way, I hope we have contributed to the growing number of workers across America standing up and saying ‘we are human beings that have dignity and deserve a decent life too and we are not going to take it anymore.’”

The Local 625 bargaining committee consisted of President Gary Williams, Vice President Mark Shaffer, Chief Steward Tim Komisak, Recording Secretary Pat Pelar, and Financial Secretary Jimmy Martino. The Local 626 committee consisted of President John Nemetz and Vice President Frank Graham. They were assisted by Field Organizer Ben Wilson, International Representative John Thompson, and UE Director of Organization Gene Elk. UE General Counsel Irene Thomas contributed legal support. UE Communications Director Jonathan Kissam and Director of International Strategies and Co-Director of Education Kari Thompson assisted with mobilization and communications. Research Director Karl Zimmerman helped with research and Eastern Region Office Manager Pat McCaughtry supported the campaign with valuable historical knowledge.

 

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