USW Local 90 Builds Power Even in a Right-To-Work-For-Less State

USW Local 90 at Dow Chemical’s Knoxville, Tenn., plant is a case study of what a local union can do to promote diversity and inclusiveness within the workplace, build the union, gain power at the bargaining table, and change the way the local community views labor so organizing a union is acceptable.

Tackling a lack of diversity

“We discovered that from 1994 to 2001, our former employer, Rohm & Haas, only employed three people of color and 11 women,” said Guy Jernigan, retired president of Local 90. 

Hiring did not change much after Dow Chemical bought Rohm & Haas in July 2008 and took over plant operations.

“Out of 47 Dow hires, we’ve only had five black workers and one woman hired,” he said. “When the hiring starts reflecting that we are not inclusive of women and people of color, there is something wrong. Your work force should reflect the diversity of your community.” 

The local represents about 130 hourly workers in the production, lab and mechanical departments. The site makes coatings, water-based polymers and water-based emulsion acrylics. 

In 2018, the local began tackling the lack of work force diversity by meeting with the Knoxville Urban League, Chamber of Commerce and Centro Hispano. 

Dow examined its direct-hire practices and organized an external hiring panel with union participation. This year, the company participated in an Urban League job fair; this historic, nonpartisan civil rights organization advocates on behalf of economic and social justice for African Americans and against racial discrimination in the U.S. 

Mike Bozzone, the current president of Local 90, said the local is still working with the Urban League today to get more people of color hired at the site.

Building the union

When the only non-member in the Local 90 bargaining unit retired in October 2018, local union officers decided to celebrate by coming into the plant on their days off to provide donuts and coffee to members working on four shifts across different areas of the plant.

The process took three to four weeks, but it gave every member the opportunity to get a donut and talk with the leadership. 

“I think it really meant something to members that we did this on our days off,” said Local 90 executive board member David Manning. “In my 25 years, I think that made more of an impact on the membership than anything else we’ve done, and we’ve bought jackets and t-shirts.”

In the management break room, the union leaders left a box of donuts with a sign saying “100% Membership.” 

In September 2019, Local 90 hosted the DowDuPont North American Labor Council (DNALC) meeting, providing a catered reception, lunch every day and a hospitality room each night for members to network with each other. Local 90 invited all of its members to attend the reception and meeting on their days off.

In 2020, the local hopes to do other events to build solidarity and educate the members about the local union and its activities. “It could be handing out more donuts, union t-shirts or maybe having a luncheon,” Bozzone said. “Nothing has been decided yet.”

Gaining power in bargaining

Local 90 began Building Power training in 2018 in advance of their contract expiration on Jan. 29, 2019. For the first time, the local distributed a series of handbills, texts, a contract survey and hard hat stickers. 

They also decided to use the site’s 75th anniversary celebration as an opportunity to showcase their solidarity ahead of negotiations. Members created a USW booth for the celebration, gave away prizes of USW merchandise to current and former members, and conducted a 50-50 raffle that resulted in a $600 collection for the East Tennessee Children’s hospital. 

Members and retirees wore their union shirts to show solidarity, and the local displayed a banner with the words “100% Strong, USW” that the members signed.

With the help of District 9 Director Daniel Flippo, the local printed a 75th anniversary coin. One side of it had the USW District 9 graphic and the words “USW Unity and Strength for Workers District 9.” The other side had a graphic of the chemical plant and the 1982 World’s Fair globe against a mountain backdrop with the words “Local 90 Union Strong 1943-2018.”

“Our members were proud of our local’s presentation,” Bozzone said. “It outshined what the company did.”

He said that labor relations changed for the better in Knoxville as a result of the local’s participation in the 75th anniversary event. In August 2019, Dow invited the Local 90 president to be a member of its Knoxville Community Advisory Panel. The company invites community leaders and officials each month for a luncheon to update them on the site’s affairs. Each quarter Dow hands out a money grant to a local nonprofit.

“Having a seat on the advisory panel is important,” Bozzone said. “It bodes well for our union.”

Dow also decided to include the union when the United Way recognized the company for donations raised. Now, Local 90 has a representative on the Knoxville United Way board. 

“In 2017, we had to fight to be included in the recognition for donations,” Manning said.

All of this positive activity gained the notice of Dow corporate leadership, government officials, community leaders, union officials, and current and former employees and their families. So when it came time to negotiate Local 90’s new agreement with Dow, the local easily obtained a five-year contract with wage increases, paid paternity leave and time for the union to conduct a new hire orientation session. Local 90 members ratified it Jan. 25, 2019.

Reaching out to the community

Besides contributing to the United Way, Local 90 also reaches out to the community by aligning itself with the local Jobs with Justice chapter and other labor, faith and community-based organizations.

“It’s so important now for locals to be active in their communities because that’s what the companies do,” Bozzone said. “Unions need to operate at a different level now and help their communities thrive.”


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