Steelworkers on strike in Alabama stay strong

August 13, 2001

BY BRIAN TAYLOR 
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama–The strike by workers at the Meadowcraft plant here remains solid after four weeks on the picket line. As members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 8285 win broader layers to join the union, the bosses have launched a series of attacks against the strike.

Workers struck the plant June 30 after rejecting a concessionary contract that would cut $2 or more from the hourly wage of welding department workers. Under the bosses’ thinly masked “incentive” plan, welders at this lawn furniture plant would have to average 104 percent production in a workweek for an 88-cent raise. If they fall short, their hourly wage would drop to $7–8 an hour.

On July 21 workers held a mass rally and barbecue in front of the plant that drew more than 200 strikers and their supporters. “Can we do it? Can we do it? Yes we can! Yes we can!” was one of several chants that day.

A number of strikers less familiar with all the issues in the fight used the event as an opportunity to ask questions of union officials and others. An information sheet on the strike is being translated for workers whose first language is Spanish.

Company begins attacks 
Two-and-a-half weeks into the strike Meadowcraft managers passed out a letter to pickets slandering the union. It claims that the union officials would not sit down and negotiate, and attempts to prettify the company’s takeback contract.

“The letter is bull,” said Willie Hall, who has worked at Meadowcraft for 31 years. “They say the union has not gotten in touch with them. But we just don’t accept the contract. As far as their statement that not everyworker is in the union and voted against the contract–majority rules and the union rules. We are on strike.”

A few days later Zen Pearson, USWA Local 8285 president and a worker in the plant, drafted a response to the company’s lies. Pearson explained that a 55-cent raise over three years–held up as so great by the bosses–doesn’t even offset the rise in insurance costs in the company’s contract.

The company letter is “all about destroying our unity and solidarity.” The letter ends giving special thanks to “our MEXICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS.” (Emphasis in original.)

Support grows for strike, union 
Strikers have won support from a substantial layer of toilers here in Birmingham. They have also gotten favorable television and news coverage. “Bell South workers brought us donuts, Ken’s Barbecue brought us a pan full of ham, and other locals have been bringing us ice and drinks,” Margie Shockley said.

Finishing welder María García noted that since the strike began the majority of Latinos in the plant have signed union cards.

Local 8285 vice president Lewis Graves said, “They hired a lot of Mexican workers and tried to turn them against us and each other. The Mexicans are good workers and the company thought they could use that against us to push the incentive plan. But Mexican workers rebelled and 25 of them got written up for low production. They joined the union. That’s why we are strong today.”

Tim Mabry, 30, who has worked two years in the shipping department, noted, “If you put welders on incentive who have to do so much to make the rate, shippers who pull those orders will basically be put on incentive too.”

One young Black worker who asked that his name be omitted, said, “I hope the company knows that we are not budging. This struggle is not just about fighting off a concession contract, but also about regaining some of what we lost in previous contracts.”

There are several demands along those lines being discussed on the picket line. One is for resumption of plant-wide seniority. Some years ago the company instituted departmental seniority, which gives the company a freer hand in layoffs and job placement. Another complaint from many strikers is the company’s sick-day policy. “The company does not honor sick days if it’s not for chronic illnesses,” Mabry told reporters. “If you get pneumonia and have to take a couple of weeks off, you can be terminated because it’s a curable disease.”

One victory was the reinstatement of Steve Yancy, a machine operator who has seven years at the plant. “I was fired because I was a union representative filing grievances against racial discrimination. The supervisor claims that I refused to obey a direct order,” he said. The termination took place late last year. Yancy was on the picket line from day one. The union won his reinstatement into the second week of the strike.

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