No matter which direction drivers approach the Omnova Solutions plant in Columbus, Miss., they can't miss a large red and white sign listing reasons why USW-represented production employees are on strike.
Located outside the Local 748L hall across Yorkville Road from the plant, the sign reports what's at stake in the nearly year-long strike by some 170 members: Seniority, Pension Benefits, Shift Rights, Job Cuts, Job Preference, Vacation, Medical and Drug Costs and Incentive Pay System.
"We put the sign there to let the public know that when they see pickets, someone on strike, they know what its about,'' said Local 748L President Jay Lawrence. "We're not just out here walking for no reason."
The Columbus facility is Omnova's primary factory for making commercial wall coverings. It also produces coated fabrics like those used for school bus and mass transit seats. A sister plant in Jeannette, Pa. is also USW represented.
As the sign makes clear to anyone driving by, Omnova, based in Fairlawn, Ohio, has attacked the union's contract from just about every possible front.
Attacked from every front
The local's members walked off the job last May 21after voting 162 to two to reject a "final offer" from management that included markedly higher health care contributions, elimination of defined benefit pensions and a pay incentive system that had been in place for decades.
Gene Gore, who had 43 years of service before the strike, told the local newspaper, The Dispatch, that no one in their right mind would have accepted the offer.
"When I saw the proposal, it was like someone had stood in front of me, open-handed, and slapped me in the face,'' Gore said, "and my 43 ½ years of service was worthless."
Since the strike began, not one member has crossed the picket line to join replacement workers brought in the plant by management, Lawrence said. Some, however, have elected to retire.
In March, about a dozen members of the local traveled to Ohio to ask questions at Omnova's annual shareholders meeting. The meeting lasted about l5 minutes and none of the six strikers admitted with proxies were given a chance to speak.
Last strike 40 years ago
"There was no discussion on the future plans of the business,'' said Lawrence, who was in the sparse audience with District 9 Director Dan Flippo. Besides the union members, there was only one other shareholder in the audience.
The last strike at the facility was 40 years ago, making this action the first for many current employees. The average age of Local 748L members is 48 years with 29 years of seniority.
The local went into negotiations hoping to hold on to the wages and benefits that they already had, Lawrence said. The membership voted by a show of hands to direct the negotiating committee to seek the status quo.
"We knew the economy was bad,'' Lawrence said. "If we could have kept our contract like it was and not took any of these losses, we would still be working."
But the company insisted on what it called radical changes including items that impact basic worker rights such as bidding on positions, machinery preference and vacation preference.
"Lord of mercy, when they said radical change, they weren't lying. That's the one thing they told the truth about," Lawrence said. "It's all across the board.''
Wages in line with others
Over the years, Lawrence said the union has given concessions in health care and other issues when warranted. Wages at the plant, he said, are in line with other industrial facilities in the region, union and nonunion.
Health insurance coverage, which cost working members about $30 to $40 a week under the last contract, would rise to $100 to $140 a week under the company proposal, he added. Salaried workers put on the same plan received wage hikes to help with the cost increase, an offer not made to the union.
Lawrence estimated the proposed health insurance increases would equal $2.50 an hour to USW members, far more than the typical wage increase of 15 cents to 50 cents an hour.
"It's getting to the point where the working man can't pay it,'' Lawrence said of the health care coverage.
Loss or reduction of incentive pay is another corporate target that Lawrence said would financially hurt most of the employees.
The incentive pay system, he said, has motivated employees to be self directed with minimal supervision, to increase production and maintain quality without costly mistakes. Wall covering products vary widely, requiring different set up and run times.
Best at what they do
Local 748L members bring considerable experience to the Columbus plant, which acts as the company's design and development center. They also typically handle difficult orders where mistakes would eat into the company's profit.
"We're the best in the world at what we do,'' Lawrence said of his members. "We're the most experienced, the fastest and we put out the best quality."
Lawrence believes the plant may be missing a chance to benefit from an improving market for its products. He cited an industry research report showing that the wall covering market should grow through 2013.
"We are missing an opportunity to gain, to help the company be on the upswing with jobs, production and large profit margins," he said. "At the time we need to be in the plant working, we're out here on strike."
As the strike approaches the May 15 anniversary, Lawrence said the members retain their resolve to stay out "one day longer" than the company, which has refused overtures to negotiate.
"We're not going to get anywhere by not talking," Lawrence said. "We are Local 748. They know where we are. When they get ready to go back to work, we are ready to negotiate."