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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 27, 2013, 4:40 pm

Union Leader Forbids Beer in Battle with Scab Company

BY Mike Elk

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Rotek Inc., which builds bearings destined for windmills and other giant machinery, says that a decline in sales forced layoffs.   Photogramma1 / Flickr / Creative Commons

United Steelworkers Staff Representative Dennis Brubaker has a golden rule when running a picket line. “I never allow beer,” Brubaker tells Working In These Times. “What always happens is that someone gets drunk and throws a rock at the boss’s office. Then they get fired [from] their job after the strike is [over].”

(As a labor reporter, I can personally attest that bored workers on picket lines frequently bring beer and flasks of liquor.)

Right now, Brubaker has good reason to run a strict picket line. He’s coordinating a tense work stoppage at a ball-bearing manufacturing facility in Aurora, Ohio that began after the company, Rotek, unilaterally implemented a concessionary contract.

Upping the ante, Rotek has brought in labor relations consultant AFIMAC to help it handle the stoppage. Working In These Times last wrote about AFIMAC in September, after the company hosted a conference, headlined by actor Henry Winkler (a.k.a. “The Fonz”), instructing companies on how to lock out workers and deal with strikes.

While the factory is essentially out of operation for the time being, AFIMAC has hired, in the union’s estimation, a “vanload” of scabs who are helping with maintenance and inventory issues.

The union has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that AFIMAC has engaged in illegal surveillance of picketing workers. Brubaker alleges that AFIMAC security guards have routinely filmed picketers on streets and have on some occasions tried to provoke workers to hit them. Brubaker speculates that AFIMAC hopes to provoke violence in order to seek an injunction limiting the size—and thus the effectiveness—of the union’s picket line.

AFIMAC did not respond for comment.

Uncertain winds

Rotek, which makes ball bearings for windmills, has been locked in contentious bargaining with its workers’ union, United Steelworkers Local 8565. Rotek claims that its business has tanked as a result of a decline in sales in the wind and military market. (The company may be referring to uncertainty over the extension of a federal tax credit for wind production, which was temporarily extended as part of the fiscal cliff deal, but for only one year. Speculation as to whether or not the credit will be renewed again may dampen investment in wind production projects.)

Last fall, Rotek, reports the union, announced that it was being forced to lay off 68 union members—out of total of 187 at the plant—as a result of the downturn in business.  Now, Rotek is telling the workers that in order for the business to stay afloat, they must agree to a slew of concessions to which the union strongly objects.

Among those concessions is a new pay scale.  Under the current wages, the maximum a worker can earn is $25 an hour, according to the union; under the proposed changes, the maximum would be reduced to $23.50 an hour for existing workers and $21.80 for new hires. The lowest-skilled workers would start at $16 an hour and max at $17.50 an hour.

Dennis Brubaker says that for a worker at the plant making the average wage of $40,000 a year, the pay cuts would result in an $8,000 reduction in wages, on average. In addition to the pay cuts, the company is demanding workers accept a new health care plan that would force workers to pay more out-of-pocket expenses.

The National Labor Relations Act stipulates that companies must open their books if they say they can’t afford to pay the contract. However, despite Rotek’s claim that steep concessions are required to keep the company afloat, the company has refused  to open up its books to show that it is indeed losing money at the plant. Brubaker claims that the company has used sophisticated language in contract negotiations to sidestep the law, such as saying that the company doesn't need the concessions to make the plant profitable but that it “need[s] to restructure this plant [to] make it more efficient.”

A side deal?

The union has also filed unfair labor practice charges with the National labor Relations Board against the company for allegedly engaging in illegal side-bargaining, claiming that a letter Rotek sent to employees falsely represents what financial information has been provided to the union. The letter, dated February 20, 2013 and signed by Rotek President Tim Gudszend and CFO Mark Girman, states:

It appears the Union Committee does not grasp the urgency of the situation.... Recently, there has been a sharp decline in demand throughout our key markets. Like many of our competitors, we have seen corresponding declines in sales, particularly the wind and military markets. In an attempt to illustrate the seriousness of our position, we have shared financial information with your Union Committee showing each of our Aurora facilities has lost several million dollars every year for the last three years; with projections for similar or even greater losses in the next few years.

However, the union disputes this, saying that Rotek has merely informed them of said losses, but has refused to open the books and share the actual data.

“We don't know what they are making,” says Brubaker. “They tell you all the negatives, but you know, with all these write-offs, they could be making profits on it. Without opening the books, they make it very difficult to [bargain].”

After the contract expired on January 5th, the union offered to continue working for a year under its previous contract. However, Rotek rejected the offer, and on January 11th, reports the union, Rotek unilaterally imposed the wage and healthcare cuts on its union workforce. At that point, the workers—feeling that if they continued to work after the cuts had been implemented, the company would have no incentive to negotiate—decided to stop working. The union, however, is insisting that they are not on strike, but rather were “forced out” after Rotek implemented the contract.

“The law in Ohio is basically that the party who disturbs the status quo ante is the party at fault for the unemployment,” explains National Employment Law Project attorney Rick McHugh. “So long as the union offers to continue working under the existing terms even if the collective bargaining agreement expires, then the employer’s rejection of this offer is considered the predominant cause of the claimants’ unemployment.”

This is the argument that the union presented in hearings before an unemployment judge in Ohio earlier this month. A ruling has yet to be handed down in this case, but one is expected by March 1.

Brubaker concedes that unless the strike is ruled an unfair labor practice strike, the workers could be permanently replaced. However, he says there is a silver lining to Rotek’s using a work-stoppage specialist shop like AFIMAC: For now, Rotek is paying AFIMAC for temporary workers instead of hiring permanent replacements.

Meanwhile, Brubaker’s picket line remains a tight ship, and no rocks (or punches) have been thrown.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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