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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 3, 2011, 10:09 am

10-Month Iowa Lockout Ends With New Contract, and Disappointment

BY Akito Yoshikane

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A ten-month lockout at Roquette America’s corn milling plant in Iowa has come to an end after its unionized workers agreed to a new collective bargaining deal.

Most of the 240 employees represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 48G voted on July 23 to approve a new contract that expires in 2015.

The workers are scheduled to return to the plant located in the town of Keokuk this month. The deal ends a nearly 12-month negotiation period with Roquette, a multinational grain milling company based in France. While the employees are relieved to return to work, they are far from enthusiastic about the new contractual terms.

Union president Steve Underwood told KHQA News that it wasn’t a good contract and they are "going to have to live with it." The sentiment was shared by the rank and file. The July vote was reportedly approved by a slim majority following some modifications to an earlier proposal, which members rejected the previous day.

The local Daily Gate City has the workers reaction following the contract ratification:

37-year Roquette employee Danny Eaton of Keokuk, a philosophical man, took a break on the labor temple porch while the votes were counted. He made it through the lockout in 1985 and he intends to do the same this year.

“If they say it passed, I’m all for it,” he said. “If they say it didn’t pass, I’m all for it. It is what it is and whatever it is, it’s 100 percent.”

That attitude is not universal. One of the first who left the labor hall after the vote said as he passed, “they f---- passed it.”

Another came out in near tears saying, “It passed, brother.”

Others walked out of the labor temple with their hats pulled down low and wearing slight smiles on their faces.

Union members took issue with details over subcontracting union jobs, two-tier wages and insurance contributions. Underwood gave cryptic remarks to local reporters about modifying the terms of subcontracting, suggesting there may be union oversight for any employment moves. Current workers will have their pay frozen for four years, and new hires will see a $2 reduction in hourly wages. Health plans have expanded to four options from two.

Roquette said in a statement that they are “pleased to have the labor dispute behind them.” But there will be tensions in the workplace. The company employed workers from its Illinois plant and also hired replacement workers from an Ohio-based agency. And the Daily Gate City reports that four workers who crossed the picket line are now supervisors. The temporary employees from Ohio will also have a chance to fill positions that are left unoccupied by union members. In all, nine members left the union during this time through retirement, attrition or finding work elsewhere. Others have enrolled in school.

Roquette locked-out workers last September after they rejected a concession-heavy proposal from the company. Lee County, which includes Keokuk, has had the highest rate of unemployed workers in Iowa over the past four years. The union criticized Roquette, which made $3.7 billion annual sales, for receiving local and state subsidies.

During the lockout, Local 48G, in conjunction with several national and international unions, sent a letter to the UN Global Compact and the OECD to help bring an end to the impasse. Talks finally progressed in mid-July when the two sides held negotiations for the first time in three months, leading to the current deal.


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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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