Led by the Black Working Class – Building a Militant Fight Back Labor Movement on a Battlefront for Black Liberation
Local 120, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) represent workers at the Locke Insulators, Inc., manufacturing facility located at 2525 Insulator Drive in Baltimore, MD. The facility, a former General Electric plant, in business in Baltimore since 1922, produces high-voltage porcelain insulators for Electric utility companies. Since the 1940s, the operational workforce there has been represented by UE.
Monday, July 10th of this year, after being off the previous July 4th week for the plant’s “annual retooling,” upon returning to work, the entire membership was given WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act of 1988) Notification. The WARN Act is US Labor Law that requires employers with a hundred or more employees to provide a 60-day calendar day notification of plant closing and mass layoffs of employees.
Both the Local and Nation UE Union were blindsided by this development, as the Union just ten months earlier, in the fall of 2016, had successfully negotiated and ratified a new three-year co
ntract with Locke good for September 30, 2016, through to September 30, 2019. Members were further outraged that after almost 70 years of a generally positive working relationship between the company and the union, that the company, for a decision of this magnitude, would only give the Union the minimum advance notice required by law, and then only after putting it out all over the media (print and electronic), before informing the workers themselves.
Completely devastated by the news that they were losing their jobs, with many senior members of this highly skilled, predominately African-American workforce having worked at Locke for twenty, thirty, and even up to forty years. Dreading and seeing September 8, 2017 (the end date of the 60-day notification period or “Dooms Day,” workers were confused by the company encouraging all union members to begin using all of their vacation days, and accrued paid sick and personal days, and to not report to work. Suspicions among some of the Local 120 leadership begin to emerge as the company even put out notice that it would pay everyone at their regular full rate pay rate not to report to work at all with no penalty with regard to the attendance control program. Supposedly all of this was due out of compassionately providing all impacted bargaining unit union members even more time to find other jobs.
The National UE field organizer working with the Local and having assisted in negotiating the last two successive 3-year contracts when finally getting feedback from the local membership and officers that the company began “floating rumors” on the plant floor (through their own reliable sources salaried and hourly alike) actual layoffs might be moved up with Friday, August 4th being the last actual work day, even though everyone would still be paid in full up with September 8th, the UE National Field Organizer working with Local 120, sensed that this constant acceleration of events to make the worksite a virtual ghost town was covering up something foul.
There was intense pressure to begin utilizing the only “response/legal mechanism” that the local thought it had to deal with, and that being the legal obligation of the company under the National Labor Relations Act to negotiate with the union over the “effects” of the Managerial Decision to shut down the plant and negotiate the best possible severance package possible to minimize the negative impact on workers and their families.
There was very little thought given deliberately attempting to slow down things somewhat, with at first no more work available as of September 8th, and then as early as August 4th, the organizer was able to get the Local 120 Executive Board to agree to a special Local 120 membership meeting for Saturday, August 5th, 2017 and delay the start of negotiations with the company until Monday, August 7th.
The company’s refusal to comply with significant aspects of unions official information request regarding the plant closing decision and the rush to get everyone to essentially disappear all began to make sense as that very same weekend, Saturday, August 5th, and Sunday, August 6th, flatbed truck after flatbed truck began delivering tons of finished insulators completely filling up the shipping area parking lots and warehouses manufactured in NGK-Locke Insulators, LTD other 100% owned manufacturing facilities in China and India through the Port of Baltimore. What Local 120 was witnessing was an expression of Global Capitalist Supply Chain (export of point of production/manufacturing work overseas with the finished manufactured goods being brought back into the US Market for sale by way of huge cargo container ships. This overall situation is also a prime example of the major restructuring of all capitalist economies to “just in time” concepts.
Any doubts that any members of the 120 Negotiating Committee that the company was attempting to “play” the entire union were erased upon receiving the company’s first package of proposals which included proposals for the union to agree to allow the company to bring in non-union temporary workers at minimum wage to do some “extra work” that they now realized what needed to be done after the September 8th date when the entire union workforce would be terminated, and any chance of receiving a decent severance package would be in exchange of every bargaining members of the union signing an individual severance agreement with a claim release to never pursue any legal claim against Locke-Insulators, Inc., or any other business entity that it may be affiliated with, meaning essentially that they give up their collective bargaining agreement and their union. For the first time in any negotiations with Locke Insulators there were no representatives from Japan on the other side of the table, only now union busting attorneys, and the principal executives of Locke Insulators, Inc., itself, the President and Human Resources Director are essentially muzzled at the table, unable to speak.
With a major change of attitude from being depressed and despondent, the negotiating committee decided to reach out to the entire membership and demonstrate with a “wear black color solidarity day” in the plant and at the negotiating day.
This change to a position from “let’s see what they are going to give us” to “we have to fight back any way we can, what is essentially an international corporate scheme to bust our union and get rid of our collective bargaining agreement” has been influenced by very strong support from the National UE Union, taking ownership of this struggle as well.
Exampled by the Chief Legal Counsel of UE and National Director of Organization to meet with the membership and negotiating committee, to the UE General President being prepared to support a contingent of Local 120 to take this struggle to the Baltimore City Council to provide opportunity for workers to tell their truth, their side of the story to the broader public and attempt to build a broader coalition of support based on the theme of Keeping Good Jobs in Baltimore; and that meaning specifically jobs paying $15 or more and a union. The average wage at Locke now for UE 120 members is between $18-$19 dollars an hour.
The union is confident in its ability to get public traction of its intensifying struggle against Locke Insulators, Inc., and its parent company, NGK Insulators, LTD in Japan. Union busting effects because of all the simultaneous developments that indicate that NGK has either agreed to sell or is in some kind of negotiations to sell the plant to Kevin Plank, billionaire owner of Under Armour and his personal development corporation, Sagamore, Inc., the architect of the Port Covington project.
The Port Covington Project is a 266-acre, six billion dollar project, which is moving forward, especially due to a 700 million plus bond, being approved by the Baltimore City Council, and recently, an additional 233 million dollar investment being donated from Goldman Sachs. The 26 acres that the NGK Locke Insulators plant sits on, is actually the “hole in the donut,” the largest piece of land in the entire 266 acre project that up to this point Kevin Plant doesn’t own.
The union position is that this struggle was never about a plant closure, but represents a “manipulated layoff” to get rid of the union, and behind the scenes the “tilting point” being a decision by NGK that the value of the land (estimate 50-60 million dollars) is more valuable to them than any amount of profit that could be extracted from continuing the manufacturing part of the Global operation at this particular site in Baltimore. The plant sits adjacent to the Sagamore-Baltimore Yacht Basin Marina, and the future site of Under Armour’s new world headquarters. Recently, after Plank was witnessed by Local 120 members having a series of meetings with NGK Japanese corporate officials, who’d just flown from Japan at Nick’s Fish House. Nick’s Fish House is a restaurant next door to the Locke plant, which sits on two acres and which itself was recently bought by Sagamore for 5.9 million dollars.
Right after that meeting, bargaining unit members are now being given special “clean-up assignments” getting rid of production related waste that has been accumulating behind the plant for decades. Big trees are now being cut down, and new grass is being planted. Kevin Plank himself is now being seen constantly flying in his personal helicopter, to oversee beautification efforts.
What’s more the “Brain Drain” has now been completed. Note the earlier statement made that UE Local 120 is a highly skilled workforce.
For years, the Baltimore Plant has been the “prop” for NGK-Insulators, LTD’s entire global manufacturing infrastructure. Engineers from Japan would spend months at the Baltimore site studying and filming the entire operation. The basic “mud” to make the insulators, and the special glaze that baked in ovens that allows to insulators selling at $8,000 to $10,000 each to meet the needs of power grids was for years being shipped out by the tons from Baltimore to all other parts of NGK’s vast overseas infrastructure because no one could make them.
In addition, the Baltimore’s plant would constantly receive inferior products made overseas and repair and stop a Made in the USA label on the repaired insulators, re-crate them and them ship out to customers.
As work is now getting out that the union is fighting a union-busting effort that is tied to Kevin Plank’s Port Covington Project, many unions, community organizations and some elected officials are reaching back out to UE and providing support.
Fred Mason, the recently retired, long-time president of the Washington DC/Maryland AFL-CIO and key note speaker at UE’s 74th National Convention held in Baltimore in 2015 during the uprising in the city in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody is and also the keynote speaker of the BWFJ 2017 annual Martin Luther King Support for Labor Banquet is supporting efforts to build a broader coalition to support this fight.
Comrade Nnamdi Lumumba of the Ujima Peoples Progress Party who while campaigning for a seat on the Baltimore City Council representing Baltimore District 7, attended a UE Local 120 union meeting reaching out to the union membership about possibilities of building a broader Labor and Communities Alliance to fight back against of public dollars and corporate welfare projects like Port Covington representing the worst kind of anti-worker, anti-community collusions between government and capital as working on outreach to other unions, and elected officials in efforts to build a broader critical mass, a social base to support a sustainable fight back.
We are now in contact with a majority 11 City Council members out of a total of 14 about this struggle.
At the Bargaining Table, which we have definitely turned into an ongoing arena of struggle, utilizing the strong successor clause language in Article I. Recognitions (the most important article in any collective bargaining agreement because it certifies the union’s control actual ownership of the work itself in that the work specified can only be performed by members of the union) means that we’re in position whether NGK likes it or not, to engage any new owner who buys the plant/regarding impact on the workers, their families and in UE’s and BWFJ’s combined implementation of social/class, struggle/rank, and file democratic unionism versus business/top-down bureaucratic unionism, focus on impact on the broader communities in which the workers and their families live.
We have filed unfair labor practices charges against NGK-Locke with the National Labor Relations Board, Region 5 which based in Baltimore are being processed now.
We have filed for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA Assistance) for impacted members of Local 120 which some folks don’t realize is a tool to not only access the Department of Labor also the Department of Commerce.
We intend to reach out (with the assistance of members of UPP who work at the docks with the local longshoreman unions regarding possible impact on the supply chain.
Finally at the table, whenever we give proposals, we back them up with group grievances filed on behalf of the bargaining unit. And finally able to protect the true interests and challenge the very essence of capitalist exploitation the private control and ownership of the labor power, the surplus value of what workers create through the process of changing raw materials into finished manufactured goods and the untold millions/billions of dollars that forces of capital extract and benefit from the global “brain working class skills drain.”
We have proposals on the table that state that whoever buys the plant and its 26 acres (market value again estimated at 60 million) has to pay out at least 8-10% of that money to workers as a reasonable severance. This proposal was worded as to whether that sale has already taken place and not publicly acknowledged as of yet, or any time in the future over the next ten years. Our argument to support the proposal is that without the workers contributions the plant itself would not have succesfully stayed in business all of these years.
Final Notes: regarding coalition building going forward
The forces of “Our Revolution” have reached out to provide support at the UE National Convention
The Baltimore City Council has reached out to UE Local 120 to set up a special meeting for the purpose of scheduling a city council meeting which will allow public testimony
Through the work of UE National, International Labor allies in Canada (particularly the partnership with UNIFOR; in Japan, with ZENROREN (the Japanese AFL-CIO); the FAT in Mexico, and unions in Italy, attending the National Convention of all committed to support a fight back on behalf of workers and unions in Baltimore.
Now that UE has endorsed the “Fight Against Racism” resolution, reference in the previous Bulletin, and included in that support resolves: to support fights against racist terror in the black community, and resolves: endorsement of all UE locals nationwide to study The Black Freedom Manifesto and particularly that all African-American members of UE nationwide support and participate in a national black liberation assembly.
That is now official UE policy for the next two years. We will work with Comrades in UPP and other revolutionary and progressive forces in Baltimore through struggle and study raising our members and other allies’ political and class consciousness to ground all of our efforts to contribute to enhancing Baltimore as a sustained battlefront for Black Liberation.