Joe Gouzd is pissed. As the president of United Steelworkers Local 8 – 957 in Morgantown, West Virginia, he represents more than 800 of the 1,500 workers who are set to lose their jobs on July 31, when the Viatris pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown shuts down for good. And though he is used to fights, he does not like feeling abandoned.
Ask Gouzd what he is hearing from his representatives in the federal government as the plant shutdown looms, and he’ll tell you, “Not a god damn thing.”
“We’ve heard nothing,” he says. “We’ve heard all kinds of horse shit from A to Z.”
This is a remarkable statement, when you consider that the closure of this one plant embodies an entire galaxy of issues that should make it a prime candidate for political intervention. It represents the often-lamented effect of offshoring: a decades-old factory whose jobs are being unceremoniously shipped overseas by the enormous conglomerate Viatris, which was formed in 2019 as the combination of Mylan and Upjohn and immediately set out to slash costs.
It represents the human and economic toll of America’s industrial decline: Many of the union jobs at the plant pay $80,000 or more, more than twice what any of the workers who are laid off are likely to get if they stay in Morgantown and find a new job. An economic analysis by the Democracy Collaborative finds that the plant’s closure could cost the surrounding county more than 4,600 jobs in total and $400 million in wages in the coming year, in a county where the median income for individuals is less than $25,000 a year.
It represents the loss of America’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capability during a pandemic: Though the coronavirus made many politicians talk about the need for America to strengthen its own supply chain at home to avoid relying on foreign countries for medicines and pharmaceutical supplies, the union’s calls for the Biden administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to take over this plant that makes generic pharmaceuticals seem to have fallen on deaf ears. All indications are that the shutdown that has loomed for seven months will go forward as scheduled next week.
And, on a raw political level, it would seem like the closure of a major factory in West Virginia — a state that has served as a political football for the past five years, and that is now the home to Joe Manchin, the Senate’s single most powerful member — would offer a prime opportunity for the Democratic-controlled federal government to score points in a red state, prove that Democrats can in fact deliver for the workers that Donald Trump paid lip service to, and throw a bone to Manchin all at once.
But none of this has caused any concrete action from the federal government to save the plant. The story of the fate that awaits the hundreds of workers in Morgantown has not become a huge national story. A slow-motion disaster that could be the seed of a great bipartisan effort to save unionized American jobs in West Virginia is instead unfolding just as the company said it would when it announced the closure plans, when most of the country was distracted by the question of whether Donald Trump would actually leave office. Gouzd says that the politicians “are running away from us.” He dismisses West Virginia Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito as an unresponsive “blowup doll.” Joe Manchin, he says, gave the union members “two minutes of his time” several months ago, and has not done anything meaningful on their behalf.
“He asked us if we still make penicillin,” Gouzd says. “We haven’t done that for 20 years.”
In a statement, Joe Manchin said, “For months, I have engaged in conversations with Viatris, Monongalia County, the Morgantown Area Partnership, and local and state leaders to find a solution that protects every single job.” (Since the plant’s 1,500 jobs are set to be eliminated in a week, any conversations he had were apparently fruitless.)
The perceived lack of help is particularly noticeable because Joe Manchin has a very personal connection to this issue: His daughter, Heather Bresch, was the CEO of Mylan, the company that owned the Morgantown plant prior to the rebranding as Viatris. Bresch came under fire in 2016 for her company’s egregious price increases of EpiPens, which prompted a recent $345 million settlement after several class action lawsuits. Bresch herself retired last year after her company’s merger with Upjohn, earning herself close to $20 million during her last year on the job. The 855 unionized Viatris workers in Morgantown who are losing their jobs will receive two weeks of severance pay for every year that they had on the job.
Our Revolution, the progressive political group, has been working for the past six weeks to elevate the profile of the workers in Morgantown, and try to win them anything it can. That work has been led by Mike Oles, an organizer who has worked on a string of similar plant closures across the country, beginning with the Carrier factory in Indiana that became a national political issue in 2016. In that case, there was a cell phone video of the company’s brutal layoff announcement that went viral; now, Oles says, companies often send workers home before making the announcements, and work strategically to bury the news.
“This plant seems more saveable than Carrier was, even,” says Oles. “This idea that we’re sending 1,500 jobs to India to produce lifesaving medicines, in areas where we have concerns about supply chains… We can support a state that’s transitioning from fossil fuels. Why wouldn’t we try to keep pharmaceuticals in the state?”
The West Virginia state legislature passed resolutions calling on state leaders to keep the plant open, but Governor Jim Justice’s efforts to find a savior do not seem to have succeeded. In June, the White House issued a report calling a robust domestic pharmaceutical supply chain “essential for the national security and economic prosperity of the United States,” but that has not prompted any concrete action to keep the Viatris plant open.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Oles says. “These jobs just don’t come back. Communities don’t bounce back from plant closings like this. I’ve seen it in five different states.”
Adding to the grim situation is the fact that not only will the factory be shutting down — the union will as well. United Steelworkers Local 8 – 957 represents only the Viatris workers. After more than 40 years of existence, Gouzd says, the local will be closing after the plant does.
Viatris said in a statement that the shutdown in Morgantown is a result of the company’s efforts to “optimize its commercial capabilities and enabling functions, and close, downsize or divest manufacturing facilities globally that are deemed to be no longer viable.” They add that the decision “in no way reflects upon the company’s appreciation for the commitment, work ethic and valuable contributions of our employees.”
The feelings of appreciation are not mutual. The mood inside the factory is “toxic,” says Gouzd. “The place is caustic. They’re ready to string somebody up by a tree.”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.