Beaver County chemical workers rally against ‘risky’ contract proposals
POTTER TWP. – Workers at a Beaver County chemical plant are urging company executives to withdraw a series of “untenable” contract proposals amid months of months-long union negotiations.
Dozens of Styropek employees represented by United Steelworkers Local 10-74 gathered at the Potter Township site on Thursday evening in response to proposals they said would nullify long-standing benefits and put workers in danger.
Contract talks began in late February, but quickly ran into a problem. The company’s current language, according to the Steelworkers, would give Styropek managers more authority to combine jobs rather than fill critical positions. This is potentially dangerous, they said, if employees are regularly required to perform tasks for which they are not fully qualified.
“Obviously this is a chemical facility – for operators and those handling oil and gas, the average training lasts from eight months to a year, and there are so many different stages of each job,” said Thursday. main operator and shop steward Chip Smith. , as Steelworkers’ bat light projected “A Fair Contract Now!” »On the facade of the building. “We’re currently understaffed and the company just wants to fill those extra shifts. “
Styropek plant manager Tim Ford told The Times on Friday that the two sides continued to make “steady progress in reaching a fair deal for everyone.”
“The company’s negotiating proposals are designed to ensure safe and efficient operations and to continue to provide good jobs in our community,” he said via email, adding that Styropek “only allows employees to perform work for which they are qualified and would never suggest otherwise. “
Styropek, Alpek subsidiary based in Mexico purchased the former Nova Chemicals plant at the end of last year, but the management of the plant remains unchanged. Site technicians have historically manufactured expandable polystyrene or foam resins used in packaging and other materials.
Smith, with 17 years in the industry, is concerned that managers are overlooking the possible consequences of “wedges” at the Ohio River plant. Long hours, fatigue and inadequate training could lead to injuries, he said, and an accidental release of chemicals could be disastrous.
“I live in this community, my family lives here,” he said. “This is our river and our air… BASF and the Shell Crack Factory are just around the corner. It is not a risk to take. “
Many Beaver County Styropek employees boast decades of experience in their trade, but Smith said changes in company culture over the past few years have led to higher than average turnover rates at the plant. . Wages and benefits support the family, he said, but “people are leaving because they think it’s more dangerous.”
Electrician and shop steward Keith Helon said between a quarter and a third of shifts are regularly covered by overtime. He looks forward to seeing these positions filled. The company, he said, rejected proposed wording prohibiting Styropek from disciplining employees who did not feel safe to perform certain work.
“From a safety perspective, we think we are sorely understaffed and we have the schedules to prove it,” Helon said. “We have guys who work rough schedules… several double shifts a week. “
Ford said Styropek is in fact hiring for a variety of union and non-union positions, and that remains a priority. The existing collective agreement provides for “both voluntary and compulsory overtime,” he added, which the company honors.
Other bargaining conflicts relate to the company’s proposals to eliminate certain seniority rights and to implement changes to the vacation policy.
As the Steelworkers and management enter their 24th bargaining session, it is unclear what concessions, if any, will be made. Employees are now operating on a continuous extension of an existing three-year contract until another agreement is reached.
“I think we’re down to things they don’t want to move,” Helon said. “But these are things the union will never give up, like seniority rights and worker safety.”
Negotiations in years past rarely went beyond a few weeks, Smith said, and involved only minor revisions.
“Our contract dates from 25 years ago,” he said. “It’s so mature that we usually do it in a few weeks. We just want to keep providing our customers with a good product, and we want everyone to come home like they came to work.
Steelworkers management said Styropek advertised replacement workers ahead of negotiations this year as part of the company’s contingency plan, sparking early tensions.
Ford said the company had a plan to “continue to operate identified areas of the plant in a safe and efficient manner, if necessary, to protect our customers, our business and the jobs of our employees.”
But, he said, “there is still our will to reach a fair deal for everyone.”
Chrissy suttles covers business, energy and the environment for the Beaver County Times and the USAToday Network. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ChrissySuttles.