Just fewer than 200 workers have been on strike for about two weeks at the MonoSol plant in LaPorte after a renegotiated 4-year contract was voted down by a majority of union workers in late November.
The key issue is a provision that allows the company to force employees to work up to 60 hours per week, according to Teamsters Local 135, the union representing the plant’s workers. The union also said there are widespread discrimination issues at the plant. The company emphatically denies that.
“We're trying to get rid of the forced, mandatory overtime, which the company claims it's not mandatory,” said Robert Myers Jr., a 12-year MonoSol employee and the plant’s union steward.
MonoSol said “97 percent of the time, workers volunteer for the extra hours” in a written statement posted on Dec. 8 about the ongoing negotiations. Most work an average of “53.84 hours during each eight-day personal work schedule,” the company wrote.
Workers don’t get to choose whether they work overtime or not, union leaders said in response, but they do often get to choose which specific days they work those extra hours.
“So they're being forced to choose the day and the company's calling it volunteering,” said Dustin Roach, business agent and president-elect of Local 135.
“We don’t shut down for Christmas, holidays, nothing. So I miss Christmas,” Myers said. “I helped coach my son's little league team. I've had to miss games because of picking up [shifts] on my off days because this place isn’t staffed right.”
The company has failed to post needed positions and offer high enough salaries, Myers said, leading to issues with absenteeism and understaffing.
In the written statement, the company said it offers “above-market wages, health and retirement benefits” with average wages around $75,000.
“The wages they put out are combined with what we get because of … the excess amount of overtime that we have to take,” Myers said. “Our base [salaries are not] the numbers they put out there.”
Both sides claim the other is lying about the working conditions and negotiations leading up to the strike.
“We are especially concerned that the union did not allow our employees to vote on our Nov. 29 offer and continues to grossly misrepresent MonoSol’s proposals in statements to our employees and the media,” said company leaders in the Dec. 8 statement. “Our employees deserve to have the information they need to make informed decisions for themselves and their families.”
That Nov. 29 contract offer wasn’t presented because it was too similar to the previous offer that 160 of the union’s 191 workers voted against a few days earlier, said Local 135 president-elect Dustin Roach. Only nine union members voted for the contract.
Last week some of the striking workers traveled to picket outside the Cincinnati headquarters of Procter & Gamble, one of MonoSol's primary customers. They wanted the company to take action, Roach said, because the union believes the "near slave labor" conditions at the LaPorte plant violate P&G’s policy against working with suppliers who exploit workers.
“I got an email from the chief financial officer of P&G,” Roach said. The company does not involve itself in contract negotiations with suppliers, the CFO wrote, according to Roach. “However, P&G does have standards that their suppliers must abide by. And they're going to evaluate our concerns.”
Procter & Gamble did not respond to a request to confirm whether such an email was sent.
“I just want to let MonoSol know that these employees don't live to work. They work to live,” Roach said. “They need to step up, do the right thing. Take care of forced overtime, take care of the understaffing issues in the facility, pay them what they deserve and, damn it, address the discrimination.”
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The union shared an informal, online poll of the plant’s Teamster workers – 52 of them said they witnessed or experienced discrimination at the plant.
Of those 52 respondents, the majority said the discrimination was based on race or ethnicity. About half said it was based on sex or gender.
“I've witnessed it there too, as a representative,” Roach said. “African American workers are disciplined at a higher rate than Caucasians. They're disciplined for things that Caucasians are not disciplined for. And really, they have their backs targeted. And it's the same way with some of the females in the environment, too.”
The company shot back in an emailed statement, saying these allegations were “created out of thin air” by Roach to bring “external pressure on the negotiations.”
“We will not stoop to his level or exploit the media to engage in name-calling and race-baiting,” said a company spokesperson in an email. “It is a sign of weakness in his own facts and positions and it reflects terribly on the good people who he is obliged to represent.”
A majority of the 92 workers that responded to the informal online poll said they “never” or “rarely” feel they can report instances of discrimination and harassment to management “without causing problems” for themselves.
“So it's a retaliatory mindset,” Roach said. “And we're not going to allow that to continue. So we will be addressing those issues here very, very soon.”
The company and union will be back at the negotiating table on Dec. 18 with a federal mediator.
Local 135 leaders said they’ve gathered support from other unions, the national Teamsters organization and local groups like the United Way of LaPorte County to keep their strike fund stocked.
Myers said he and the other workers are willing to stay on strike “as long as it takes.” He said they’ve gotten the company to budge on a few other key provisions, but not on the overtime.
“We just want a fair deal,” he said.
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