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Momentive workers ratify contract, ending strike

Momentive workers ratify contract, ending strike

Workers will return to work Wednesday
Momentive workers ratify contract, ending strike
Momentive workers on strike stay warm near the burn barrel and read over the contract offer on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Bill Johnson didn’t vote yes on a contract that allowed 700 union Momentive Performance Materials workers like him to get back to work Wednesday.

He didn’t vote no, either. 

“I don’t feel like the contract is fair, so I would vote no, but I don’t want to be responsible for some of these young guys not having a job,” said Johnson, a 30-year employee who works as a trainer at the Waterford chemical plant. “So I’m abstaining from voting.”

Johnson, speaking from the union headquarters by the plant on Hudson River Road where the vote took place Monday and Tuesday, said he wasn’t happy that the deal reduced health care benefits. He admitted that’s “a common theme nowadays.”

“The thing that really kills me is the guys that got fired for trumped up charges are being used as pawns,” he said. “And then the other part is the ability for the company to keep the scabs in there when it’s a closed shop. They should be union employees, and they got that in the contract.”

Johnson also said he didn’t appreciate that “politicians lined up behind each other to pat themselves on the back when this came down.”

The 100-day strike appeared to be nearing an end when Momentive and union leaders announced a tentative pact last week that was met with praise from state and federal lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer. Tuesday’s favorable vote by the workers made it official.

The workers, represented by IUE-CWA Locals 81359 and 8130, had been on strike since Nov. 2, protesting cuts to health care benefits and wages, as well as frozen pensions. They were also fighting to stop the elimination of health care benefits. 

During the strike, union members pointed to Momentive bringing on less-skilled replacement workers as the reason for a spike in oil and chemical spills at the plant since the strike began. Last month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation cited the company for numerous health and safety violations found during six site inspections since union workers walked out.

“We're pleased that Momentive workers have ratified the tentative agreement and their 15-week struggle to protect good jobs in upstate New York has come to an end,” Dennis Trainor, vice president for CWA District 1, said in a prepared statement. “It is understandable that some members felt that they didn't achieve everything they wanted or deserved, but this agreement represents a substantial improvement over the company's ‘take it or leave it’ offer that sparked the strike last November.”

He added, “The Momentive workers and their families can be proud of the battle they waged, and we are all grateful for the amazing support they received from the labor movement, the community and from elected officials.”

The three-year deal includes raises and protects a matching retirement fund the company wanted to cut, while also providing a one-time bonus of $2,000. It reduces health insurance, cuts accrued vacation time and ends health and life insurance benefits for retirees.

The contract leaves unresolved, however, the future of 27 employees fired by Momentive during the strike, whether it be for alleged misconduct on the picket lines or alleged sabotage.

Craig Finigan, a six-year logistics operator at the plant, was one of them. He said from the union headquarters Tuesday that he was fired after being seen on Momentive surveillance video using his scanner, which picks up the 800 megahertz channels used by the plant. He said his employer “misconstrued my scanner as one of the radios from inside.”

“It’s probably the combination of seeing the microphone on your chest and the fact that you knew everything that was going on,”  offered Tim Larson, a 28-year logistics operator who also voted no on the contract. 

Finigan served as a spokesman for the union when workers petitioned CEO Jack Boss’ Saratoga Springs neighborhood. He believed he would get his job back if the contract was approved, but still voted no.

“Even with the arbitration saying I’m going to get my job back, I’m willing to roll the dice on this because that health care is not good enough,” he said.

Larson challenged Finigan’s assertion that getting rehired was a guarantee.

“Doesn’t it say that if you vote this contract in, then you drop all grievances and complaints, and everything against the company?” Larson asked. “So where’s your arbitration?” 

“I think you’re looking too far into it,” Finigan said.

“No, I’m not,” Larson said. “You’re working on trust. I’m not.” 

The contract states that a “neutral investigator” appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would look into the alleged acts behind the firings, and fired employees would not return to work until their termination was “modified or rescinded.”

The union could file for outside arbitration for any workers not hired back, and workers fired for alleged misconduct on the picket line would go through an expedited arbitration process, according to the contract. The union has denied the sabotage allegations. 

Hours before the final votes were cast, Finigan expected the contract to be ratified because “a lot of people are ready for it to go through.”

“It’s pitiful out on the line right now,” he said. “The fight is out of the dog.”

Under the approved deal, employees will receive 2-percent raises in June of this year and in 2018.  The contract also revealed that Momentive is looking to reduce its workforce; it’s offering buyouts for as many as 100 workers over two years, starting in January 2018 and again in 2019.

To soften the blow of reduced healthcare benefits, Momentive will provide 50 cents for every $1 employees contribute to their Health Savings Accounts.  

Last week, when the tentative deal was announced, Boss, the Momentive CEO, said it provides a “fair, market-competitive package for our employees and their families while allowing Momentive to remain competitive.” He also thanked Cuomo, Schumer, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand along with state senators and Assembly members for encouraging the meetings that led to the agreement being reached. 

Momentive, previously GE Silicones, was spun off to private equity firms in 2006.

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