Machinists strike in NC enters month 3

Related story: "Strikers betray unions' ugly legacy: Racism" • More strike stories: here

Employer gets by with replacement workers

A rare Triangle-area strike is about to enter its third month, but neither the workers on the picket line nor the company, Moncure Plywood, sound close to giving in.

It's not easy for either. While the company struggles to make do with unskilled replacement workers, the strikers are living off $150 a week each from their union and from contributions from other unions and charities. Some, like James Waddell, 43, of Lee County, have had to take part-time jobs.

"I got bills, man," said Waddell, who found work driving a van three days a week. "But I'm not going back in there without a union contract. I'd rather lose everything I got before I'd work like a slave."

Strikes are relatively rare anywhere, involving only about 1 percent of union contracts, said James Andrews, president of the N.C. State AFL-CIO. That and the fact that this state is one of the least unionized in the nation make them even more unusual in North Carolina.

Andrews could recall only three in the past seven or eight years, the most recent being a national strike that affected a Goodyear tire plant in Fayetteville in 2006. That strike lasted about three months.

The Moncure strikers are members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The union's three-year contract with the company expired April 30, and negotiations over a new one broke down in July.

About 105 people are on strike, union workers said. The company, meanwhile, has hired 110 workers that it regards as permanent employees, said Jeff Matuszak, the sales and marketing manager. The plant's normal work force is about 210; it has 94 workers who either left the union or were nonunion to begin with.

"We remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached [with the union], but we're here to run this mill, which is why we have hired permanent replacements," Matuszak said.

He declined to speak about details of any negotiations with the union, which are kept confidential.

"We have always committed to bargain in good faith, but I can't talk about it," Matuszak said.

More than 60 of the new hires came from the group of 836 workers who lost their jobs in May when the Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant closed in Siler City, Matuszak said. Most of the rest also are local residents.

The strikers man the picket line 24 hours a day, and have been there so long now that the "on strike" signs they hang on strings around their necks and hand off at shift changes are spotted with mold.

They pass their six-hour shifts sitting on lawn furniture, playing checkers or standing by the road and waving at passing cars.

For shelter, they have a couple of patio table umbrellas. They have to drive somewhere when they need to use the bathroom because, they say, Chatham County deputies made them remove portable toilets they had placed beside the road.

Strikers' complaints

The main issues, they said, include the company's proposals to boost their workweek, which often could have meant six days or even seven days in a row, week after week; to increase the cost of health insurance for families by $80 to $90 a month; and to remove the union's ability to use seniority for things such as determining who fills new job openings. Wages, which they said average about $14 an hour, weren't a serious sticking point.

Some strikers haven't been able to hold out. Eight union members have given up and come back to work, Matuszak said. Others are welcome to come back and apply for any openings, he said.

Most, though, remain defiant.

"I really don't think the company thought we'd be out here this long," said Eric Hancock, 35, of Sanford. "They can't hold out, though, because there's just too much experience out here with us."

The strikers said that the new hires are actually temporary workers hired through an agency, and that they lack the skills to keep the plant running properly.

The company makes a special type of plywood from hardwood that's used in making furniture. Based on the number of trucks leaving each day, the workers say that production is off and, what's more, a large amount of the plywood is a lower grade that fetches less money. It takes more skill to make better grades, and the new workers don't have it, they said.

Matuszak agreed that the work takes skill and is highly labor intensive but said the new employees are improving.

"Yes, there's a learning curve," he said. "But we're on the upward trend of a learning curve."

Holding out

Local president Lewis Cameron, 57, of Harnett County said the strikers think the company brought in the current plant manager to break the union. Matuszak said that isn't true.

"That's absolutely false," he said. "From the beginning, we always bargained in good faith and tried to achieve a good contract."

The strikers said they dealt with the worst days of summer and hope they don't have to deal with frigid weather, too, but that they will, rather than give in.

"It was just hot, and we dealt with the heat," Hancock said. "It may be easier to deal with the cold, but we hope by that time something happens -- either we're back in there working, or they have shut down."


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