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Wednesday, Dec 8, 2010, 9:15 am

In Iowa, Lockout Continues for Roquette America Workers

BY Akito Yoshikane

More than 240 union workers for Roquette America in southeastern Iowa have been locked out of their jobs since September, after they rejected a concession-heavy contract that they say undermines their collective bargaining agreement.

The two sides are at a stalemate over wages and benefits at the company’s corn milling facility located in Keokuk, a small city of about 11,000 that borders Illinois and Missouri. The company has since hired replacement workers; some of the long-time union employees are now relying on unemployment benefits as negotiations continue to stall amid accusations of union busting.

Roquette America, a subsidiary of Roquette Frères in France, produces corn starches, syrups and starch derivatives. The employees are represented by Local 48G of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate.

Negotiations for a new contract began in August and formal talks began in mid-September. The union says the conflict arose when Roquette hired outside parties and brought more than 130 proposals that essentially “gutted” the collective bargaining agreement.

The two major points of contention are changes to the health insurance and use of temporary workers. According to the labor group, Roquette wants more management rights, including the ability implement seniority-based layoffs. For the current employees, Roquette wants to freeze wages, change retirement benefits and increase worker contributions to healthcare. The company also wants authority to hire temporary workers without benefits. That suggests a proposal for a two-tier employee model, a trend that is growing across the country

Local 48 G rejected the proposals in late September, leading to the lockout as the company brought in more than 60 replacement workers. The two sides have met 18 times in recent months and a federal mediator has been involved in negotiations.

The company has said that the industry has become more competitive compared to four years ago when the last contract was signed. Roquette America president and CEO Dominique Taret explained the reasons for why the company is asking for concessions.

“Uncertain economic conditions, increasing regional and international competition, changing market demands and more strict governmental regulations require businesses to adapt quickly and perform better in order to be competitive,” he wrote in a statement.

In a second open letter to the community last Friday, Taret focused on six core goals to improve their facilities. He writes:

The Company’s contract proposal focuses on six core goals to improve plant operations; achieve greater workforce stability; improve competency development; enhance job performance and accountability; increase workforce flexibility; and compensation system stability.  These labor proposals attempt to balance the needs of our employees and protect their interests while seeking changes that will allow us to accomplish these six critical goals.

It’s unclear whether Roquette is profiting, but the global company has received local funding. The company announced in June plans to for a $27 million remodeling project, receiving $2.5 million in tax benefits. The union estimates Roquette has received $4.5 million from the city and state.

While the company plans to modernize the facility, the concessions come at a hard time for the local community. Keokuk, located in Lee County, is part of an area that has one the highest unemployment rates in Iowa. Since negotiations began in August, the jobless figure increased from 10.7 percent to 10.9 in October, according to Iowa Workforce Development. Lee County is currently the only county in Iowa with jobless figures in the double digits.

The local mayor has not taken sides but has urged an end to the lockout. Meanwhile the French union representing Roquette employees in France sent a letter of support. And solidarity marches with local labor groups have continued in Keokuk.

Both sides have continued to express a desire to reach an agreement. Three more bargaining sessions are reportedly scheduled in the coming weeks.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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