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Cold, broke and under surveillance: life on the Momentive picket line

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Cold, broke and under surveillance: life on the Momentive picket line

Photos by Thom Williams

On an average Tuesday, Kellie Rossner would be leaving work at 7 AM. She would have just finished a 12-hour shift in the seven-story chemical distillation unit where she works as a chemical operator at the Momentive Performance Materials (MPM) Plant in Waterford. She would find herself hell-bent on staying awake for the rest of the day to regulate her sleeping schedule in preparation to wake 7AM day shift in a few days.

After four and a half years of working at the plant, it has never quite regulated. She would locate a local hiking trail to explore (it’s the only thing that forces her awake) or find herself doing mindless chores around the house. “We call those ‘Stupid Tuesdays,” another worker, Robert, will tell The Alt later. “Nothing important gets done on a Tuesday.” But today, Rossner is spending her 83rd day on strike. She is standing at one of the nine entrances of the Waterford plant alongside a dozen or so of her coworkers who huddle around a barrel fire. Rossner feels off-kilter without a regular work schedule. She spends at least 20 hours a week on the lines as opposed to the 60-plus hour weekly plant schedule. If anything, last night she had a full night’s sleep.

Close to 700 technicians, engineers and other facility workers have been picketing along Route 4 and 32 since Nov. 2, 2016. Roughly 600 came from the local Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) 81359 and the other 80-plus technical workers come from the 81380. They stand on the sides of the road for 24 hours every day of the week, circulating in four-hour shifts from 7 to 11 or 11 to 3 both day and night. Large tents set up next to barrels and pits–home to a crackling fire for the strikers to warm themselves–are central to each picketing site.

Stacks of assorted firewood regularly donated by supporters are haphazardly piled closeby under a tarp to guard from the dampening fog and rain. Some gather in groups around the fire, breaking off conversations mid-sentence to flip off the 18-wheeler trucks as they leave the facility. “They’re doing what they’ve gotta do to make a living, we get that,” labor union Vice President Darryl Houshower said. However, many workers feel betrayed by the truckers’ lack of consideration for the people they worked alongside only months ago.

In 2009, MPM cut the production worker’s wages by 25 to 50 percent, Houshower reports. He has worked for 27 years at the plant and currently spends his time managing the 12-week-and-counting strikeline. The workers went along with the cuts as well as the company’s move to freeze pensions for workers under 50 years old in 2013. “You had to be 50 years old, with 10 years of service to keep your pension,” Houshower explained. “Everyone else was subject to an enhanced 401(k) based on their time and took additional cuts of 2 to 7 percent.” In the fall of 2016, the company moved to cut again, increasing health insurance payments, cutting vacation days and further decreasing retirement benefits. Retirees living with long term illnesses caused by exposure while in the plant would lose coverage. In November, the union workers walked out.  

“The risk vs reward is a huge factor for people. It’s a risky business to be in but we were always rewarded and they’ve been chipping away at that, contract after contract, where people start wondering, ‘Is it still worth it to work at a chemical facility? Is my health worth it?’” Rossner said.

“A lot of people say that healthcare is a national issue, which we understand. But we’re in a specialized field where healthcare is paramount to the safety of your workers over the lengths of their careers and going into retirement. Unfortunately, [for] the majority of folks that are going into retirement at this point, protective equipment was not what it is now. A lot of them suffer grievously due to what they were in there with for 30, 40 years. And now they want to take away the retiree healthcare and leave these people out to dry for five years until they reach Medicare age.”

On Jan. 13, negotiations between the company and strikers came to a standstill. Representatives who met with the company found that their asks to retain proper coverage and benefits had not been addressed. “It wasn’t a good faith contract,” Darrell Harrington said, adding that the proposal seemed to only further punish the striking workers instead of coming to a compromise. “We’re not just standing up for ourselves, we’re standing up for future workers.”

Harrington says that he has seen generations working at this plant. It has been a reliable source of employment in the community and the recent cuts have introduced a distrust. He has worked at the company for six years as a caulking worker in Building 85 on the north end of the plant. Now, he stands closeby at Post 3, armed only with a mug of coffee and a sign around his neck that reads “Robber Barons are Alive and Well.” He explains that the phrase represents the management with ownership in the company.

Apollo Global Management bought General Electric (GE) Advanced Materials in 2006 for $3.8 billion. Currently they own 40 percent of the industrial production company, renamed Momentive Performance Materials. CEO Leon Black is number 105 on Forbes top 400 Wealthiest, with a personal net worth of $5.2 billion. Oaktree Capital Management owns close to 14 percent. Its founder and co-chairman Howard Marks is currently worth $1.84 billion. Among other owners are Blackstone Group with 7 percent. CEO Stephen Schwarzman is the head of President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum and is worth $11.2 billion.

The contract cuts are expected to save the company upwards of $30 million, though the reasoning behind its restructuring is hard to place. The company came in 52nd on Forbes America’s Largest Private Companies in 2016 with a reported revenue of $6.4 billion.

This is the third contract that has been offered since MPM took over from GE. Workers told The Alt that no single Momentive CEO has seen two employee contracts. The company executives come in, introduce cuts and leave. CEO Jack Boss is just the latest offender.

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The contract isn’t the only thing at stake. The Times Union recently reported that DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has been invested in the strike movement, warning Boss in a recent letter that he will soon cite the company’s violations of chemical spill and hazardous waste handling under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

It is at Post 3 where one of the most recent spills took place, the day before contract negotiations. On the 8:10 AM petroleum spill from Jan. 12. A Shaker Group Inc. truck had driven along Schoolhouse Rd., where Harrington and his shift-mates Dan Goyer and Corey Lehmuth stand watch. Due to the rain and the prolonged response time, the oil quickly seeped into the soil and the Mudderkill stream that opens into the Hudson River. While it has been reported that the Hudson was safe from the recent spill, Finigan’s documentation suggests otherwise. He reports that the DEC and the plant’s emergency response brigade were quick to apply floor dry (a granular absorbent) to the soil and booms (temporary floating containment tubes that skim the water for oil sheen) to the left side of the stream. However they disregarded the right side for two and a half hours. “It’s impossible that in that time, oil didn’t make it to the river,” Finigan said.

Since the workers have been striking, there have been 52 spills and leaks of hazardous material reported to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC). Operator Craig Finigan has been keeping track, calling the DEC each time there is an accident and sending along a written report along with video and photo documentation–especially of those not reported by Momentive, such as the Dec. 22 spill from the decant tank at the wastewater center. “It decants oils and solids from the water,” Finigan explains. “It is very hazardous and used to be drummed off as hazardous waste.”

The toxic sludge had erupted from the unpressurized tank and spilled all over the catwalk railing and ground below for several minutes. Finigan estimates that at least 100 gallons spilled out with a loud bang as the rupture disk burst. “This could only mean the tank was monitored so poorly that it had been [overflowing] for a while,” he explains in the accident report. “There is an alarm that goes off when the tank is full. There are even relief valves that can be opened to recycle the material back into the tank to redo the entire process.” The workers attribute the significant increase in spills to the inexperience of scab workers– temporary employees sent in to replace the striking workers.

Bill Johnson, who has spent the last 30 years working at the plant, said it can take two to five years to learn about the machinery and how to operate it. At this rate, they are skeptical of the company’s ability to maintain the rate of production with the time it would take to train the new workers and manage the overwhelming number of accidents.

“It’s really dangerous where the reactors and distillation is,” Johnson said. “There’s a handful of leaders and engineers in there, but they can’t run the equipment, they weren’t part of the day-to-day operations. Little tweaks to the system here and there, these aren’t in the book for you to read about how to keep things in control and in check. I’ll guarantee you they’re not doing half the work we would be, in fear of something going wrong when they don’t have the people to respond to it.”

He and other strikers believe the input of workers and output of trucks are simply for show. A waste of money on hourly scab wages and transportation of very few–if any–materials that could have simply been put towards employee healthcare and retirement. Johnson recalled when strikers once stopped a truck driver who was pulling into the plant around the back entrance. They do this often, to explain their presence and current situation. “A lot of them don’t even know,” Harrington said. “Some of them will back right out and drive away.” This particular driver relayed to the workers that he was pulling in his tractor trailer to pick up only one pallet.

“It’s honestly insulting at this point that the company is hemorrhaging money just to keep us out, just to flex their muscles,” Rossner said. They are concerned about community safety when it comes to the mere two months that scab workers have had to learn the inner workings of the dangerous equipment at Momentive.

“There are two huge hydrogen tanks on the southwest corner of the plant. If something happened, this plant wouldn’t be here and part of Waterford would be gone,” Johnson said, pointing towards the facility.

Safety inside the plant isn’t the only matter weighing on workers’ minds. As of Monday, Jan. 16 the organization leaders have taken on the responsibility of strikeline safety and accountability. This has been the first week the strikeline has been in operation without Saratoga County Police involvement, who strikers say have been courteous and respectful. The local law enforcement had been keeping watch over the area, ensuring that the strikers and facility employees interact safely. There has only been one reported arrest: Todd Robbins obstructed the police direction of traffic Dec. 21. However, the daily escort of management and the 105 scab workers in and out of the facility, as well as regular check-in on the 24/7 strikeline has cost the county more than $500,000.

Since they officially pulled out of the plant Monday, the company is paying out of its own pocket for security in the form of red minivans that park on the inside of the facility. “They’ve got cameras on us all the time, just waiting for us to do something crazy,” says Goyer. So far, five workers have been fired for striking behavior, but overall things have been quiet. “We do a good job watching ourselves and each other,” says Johnson. “All of us being out here, you’re getting to know people and their stories that in the plant you would have just walked right by them. It’s making us stronger as a group.”

They have also found support from outside sources such as Vt. Senator Bernie Sanders, members of the Albany County Legislature, New York’s Working Families Party and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Waterford Post 5800. They’ve had food regularly donated to keep up their morale: ever-flowing pots of Death Wish coffee and a box full of various fresh loaves from Panera Bread in the main headquarters.

Donations are greatly appreciated by the workers. Supporters who visit the strikeline donate firewood, meals and time. During the holiday season, toy and food drives gave families the ability to celebrate despite tight wallets. The loss of work has taken its toll on not only the facility workers, but those who depend on them. Families feel the stress of an unstable future and workers see few options to choose from: the loss of income during striking or the inability to provide care for family members in a contract that continues to deplete benefits.

Rossner’s boyfriend is a contract maintenance worker who regularly–and currently–works in the plant. Now, there have been frequent layoffs for the unionized contract workers that won’t cross the strikeline to enter the facility and Rossner has had to do some careful planning for their financial future in case he loses his job.

“You’ve taken down your pay rate so much that you really start examining your finances and really trying to cut corners here and there when you can. Especially when most of our income comes from this place, with him being a contractor. It’s been extremely stressful to penny pinch, in case he gets laid off. It would be devastating to our family as a whole.”

The remaining union workers who have not left in search of other employment intend to strike for as long as it takes. According to Johnson, only 15 workers have crossed the strikeline to go back to work since November but the unions have no plans to back down anytime soon.

“The union is incredibly strong,” Rossner says. “It’s going to go on as long as it takes because people don’t see it just being about us at this point… We aren’t asking for a raise. We aren’t asking for anything we didn’t already have.”

The strike at Momentive follows a similar situation at the Honeywell factory in Green Island. Workers were locked out in May 2016 after rejecting the company’s contract that cut healthcare and retirement. Additionally, there was the 2016 nationwide Verizon strike after the mass outsourcing of employees.

“It’s not just here, people are trying to break the unions everywhere. The rich are gonna get richer and the poor are gonna get poorer, now the sad part is, they’re gonna try and wear us down to nothing.”

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