In Iowa, Locked-Out Roquette Workers File International Complaint

Akito Yoshikane

The 240 workers in Iowa who have been locked out of their jobs since September stepped up their labor efforts last week by filing an international complaint against the parent company of their employer, Roquette Fréres. The French-based company produces starch and sugar derivatives and has two facilities in the United States.

Employees at the company’s corn-milling facility in Keokuk, Iowa, issued a formal grievance last Thursday to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), accusing the U.S. subsidiary Roquette America of violating international labor standards.

The union alleges that the company intentionally planned to lockout the workers in order to impose a concession-heavy collective bargaining agreement.

The grievance, filed by their union, is the latest in the workers’ bid to spur a resolution to the labor strife through mediators after several failed negotiating sessions between the union and the company. The complaint comes amid reports that the company’s replacement workers spilled corn syrup into the nearby Mississipi River as calls from the community resolve the issue grow louder.

The conflict stems from a dispute over a new labor agreement that seeks to dramatically revise workers’ pay and benefits. The company locked out the workers in September after employees rejected a proposal, which they say would gut their labor agreement.

The union has stated its willingness to work without a contract during negotiations, but the company has refused.

The company wants to create a two-tier wage scale; increase employee contributions to healthcare; eliminate the union president position; the ability to hire temporary workers at a reduced wage; and institute a 4-year wage freeze, according to the union.

The workers are represented by Local 48G of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union of America. Their affiliate, AFL-CIO, and two other global unions also joined their efforts to file a complaint.

OECD guidelines require that its member states ensure companies located within their bounds comply with workers’ rights standards. But the unions accuse Roquette America of violating these guidelines, and say the company’s plans to lockout the workers was premeditated.” The union suggests the company had no intention to bargain in good-faith.

They write:

The fact that replacement workers were instantly available to operate a complex plant requiring a trained, specialized workforce immediately after the lockout was implemented indicates a premeditated plan to lock out the workers, if necessary for a prolonged period, in order to impose a collective agreement on the company’s unilateral terms and/​or to permanently replace the existing workforce.

Such an operation would have required sophisticated planning to have been under way no later than August, as part of management’s aggressive drive to weaken the union.

The unions have called on the OECD representatives to contact the company’s French offices, and have also asked to send staff to meet with the workers and management in the United States to help settle the dispute. That’s because the last negotiation session held in December did not fare any better than previous meetings. According to a statement published on local news Website con​nect​tris​tates​.com, Roquette said in a statement they were disappointed” by the talks.

This latest unproductive session and the union’s continued unwillingness to address core issues seriously questions how any near-term negotiation sessions can produce a resolution of the labor dispute,” said Tom Ross, the human resources director for Roquette America. He adds: Therefore, neither the union nor the Company has established any future negotiating dates. We sincerely hope that the union leadership modifies its current position so the labor dispute ends and bargaining unit members return to work.”

During the impasse, Roquette has used workers from a separate facility and contracted with a Ohio-based company that specializes in supplying replacement workers during labor disputes. And earlier this month, reports emerged that Roquette spilled 6,000 gallons of corn syrup into the Mississippi river after a worker failed to close a drain valve. The environmental impact is reportedly minimal but the company is expected to face fines because they did not report the accident.

Meanwhile, county officials have even passed a unanimous resolution urging an end to the lockout as it enters its fourth month. With several failed negotiations in the books, an outside mediator may be the only chance to resolve this dispute.

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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