Bull Moose workers were locked out of their jobs at midnight Tuesday by the St. Louis-based management. (Contributed photo.)
Major Trenton employer Bull Moose Tube caused shockwaves in the community when it locked out its workers at 12 a.m. Wednesday morning. A supervisor came out at midnight Tuesday to tell the incoming workers they couldn’t come in and the departing ones not to come back, reported County Executive Ted Rumley, who’d gone to the plant to observe the threatened lockout.
"It’s almost unheard of," said the county boss. “This lady told me in the Department of Labor this morning that she can never remember a lockout in the state of Georgia in 30 years.”
About 65 people are affected by the lockout, all the hourly workers at the plant represented by United Steelworkers. Dade County is coordinating with the Georgia Department of Labor to streamline the unemployment compensation process for those idled employees. The DOL’s “Career Bus” will be in Trenton—probably outside the Administrative Building, said Rumley—to sign them up on the spot all day Friday. “They don’t have to fill out any hand forms or anything,” said Rumley.
Rumley explained that the Bull Moose workers are eligible for unemployment compensation because it was their employer who decided unilaterally to end negotiations and shut them out. “If it was a strike, it would be different,” he said. “We wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
In labor union parlance, a strike is when workers decide to stop work until management agrees to better their conditions. In a lockout, by contrast, it is management that decides to oust workers.
Union representative Michael Healan (left) and Joey Casey, president of the local chapter, sit on rocks outside Bull Moose Wednesday to chat with The Planet. Management inside let St. Louis communicate with the local media via press releases.
“We didn’t take this action. They took it against us,” said Joey Casey, president of the local United Steelworkers chapter. “We want to be in there working. We want to feed our families. We want to provide for our families, and they’re forcing us out here.”
United Steelworkers local representative Michael Healan, on hand with Casey at the Dade industrial park outside Bull Moose along with other sign-carrying locked-out workers Wednesday morning, said the union had been in talks with Bull Moose management in St. Louis, Mo., since February and he’d thought they were close to coming to terms. “We felt like we were moving in a positive direction to reach an agreement,” said Healan.
St. Louis had issued an earlier lockout notice, he said, but then sent representatives to meet with union leaders in a 12-hour marathon the following Sunday, when most of the differences seemed to have been hashed out.
“We still had a few issues outstanding,” said Healan. “We signed an agreement that day that we would come back to the table no later than Sept. 10 to finish our negotiations. We also submitted an information request on their health care proposal. On Tuesday of that following week they supplied part of the information on that health care request, and the following Wednesday, they issued a lockout notice that was effective last night at midnight.”
Healan added that the union had sent management a letter that morning reiterating the workers’ desire to work. He read The Planet the company’s response, in part:
“ ‘The lockout is for the sole purpose of bringing economic pressure to bear in support of the company’s legitimate bargaining proposal,’” he read. “What they’re trying to do is starve our members out.”
Bull Moose management inside the Trenton plant would not make itself available for comment at all—Healan and Casey said the plant manager they’d started negotiations with had been fired midway through the process, and a new manager had started just last week—and the St. Louis Bull Moose headquarters is communicating through press releases only.
But from press releases on one side and comments from Healan and Casey on the other, the major bone of contention between Bull Moose and the union seems to be health insurance. “They want to raise our deductible and raise our co-pays—they want the health care to be so expensive that you can’t use it,” said Healan.
A press release Wednesday from Bull Moose in St. Louis outlined a proposed family deductible that grows from its current level of $1800 to $2700 in graduated yearly steps. It also described a “virtual care” online-doctor benefit it would offer. It didn’t mention co-pays.
Union rep Healan said the health care plan as it stands is not lavish but that workers and their families were taken care of if they got sick, and that the union had given up wage increases in favor of keeping it intact. “Now they’re not going to give them wages and they’re wanting to take away the good health care,” said Healan. “One of our proposals was actually to increase the premium but the deductible and the out-of-pocket limit we wanted to keep at the level they’re at.”
Both the union reps and the Bull Moose press releases expressed optimism about reaching an agreement in the end. “...we remain hopeful the Union will accept our last offer and we can finalize a new contract with union leadership in the very near future,” read the Aug. 22 Bull Moose release, in part; and Healan said the two sides still had that date for Sept. 10.
Meanwhile, locked-out workers on the sidewalks watch people they don’t know going inside, presumably to work their jobs. Healan and Casey say that’s bad for everybody.
“The job these guys do is not something you can just pick up and do,” said Healan. “They’re pouring the flat steel into tubes—what they do is dangerous work. These guys are putting these replacement workers in danger. These trucks that are being loaded that are going out on our roads, they’re being loaded by people who don’t know how to load the trucks.”
“The normal guys that load these trucks, some of them have been working 15 to almost 20 years,” said Casey.
“They’re putting these trucks out on our roads endangering our citizens because they’re overweight, they’re lopsided—they’re not doing it right,” said Healan.
The Bull Moose press release addressed this matter of “scab” workers as follows: “While it is not our preference, we are prepared to enact contingency plans, which we have put in place to ensure all Bull Moose Tube customers will continue to receive the same level of service – without interruption – they have come to expect from us.”
The Bull Moose release says the company has a long track record of providing good wages and benefits, including “hourly-plus incentive wage rate from $20-$24 per hour.”
Healan and Casey agreed that the company had been good to work with until recently. “The Trenton facility was put here in 1983, they formed a union in 1986, and they struck the first bargaining agreement in February 1987,” said Casey. “There’s not been a work stoppage since then until now.”
But now, they said, the local plant manager had been given his walking papers and: “We’re not dealing with anybody local,” said Healan. “Everybody we’re dealing with is from St. Louis. They don’t have any ties with this community. They don’t care about this community. All they care about is their profits.”
At the county commission office, county boss Ted Rumley expressed similar sentiments. Workers had shown him certified letters from Bull Moose that he found intimidating, meant to frighten not just the workers but their families. “That is not right, I don’t care who it is,” said Rumley. “All these people down there, they’re just old hard-working people—some of them have been there the best part of their life--and then get treated like, hey, we don’t care. That’s not right.”
And it’s not, he added, as if the workers had chosen to strike. “These people were trying to negotiate,” said Rumley. “They just want to work. They’ve got house payments. They’ve got car payments. They’ve got little kids in school.”
Union rep Healan said about 10 of the locked-out workers live in Trenton proper and about 50 percent of the others in Dade. The remainder of them live in adjoining DeKalb and Jackson (Ala.) counties, a few in Walker.
Rumley said Bull Moose was the only "union shop" in Trenton. Healan and Casey said there were more unions in the Chattanooga area than most people realized, though, and that both Chattanooga and Birmingham had rich union histories.
Healan said the union does not pay workers' wages during a lockout but has an emergency fund to take care of their needs in some cases.