Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trade, Timber, and Termination: Worker Struggles in California's Gold Country

Photos courtesy of Sue Jennings-Johnson

By Michael Israel and David Roddy

On August 23, 2012, sawmill workers in Martell, California, declared a strike against the owners of the SierraPine Ampine particleboard plant. Martell is the commercial and industrial pivot of Amador County, a strip of foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe characterized by Black Oak, Ponderosa Pine, and Republican candidate lawn signs. The region had not seen a significant strike in years.

The workers and their union, Lumber and Sawmill local 2927, had previously been in the process of negotiation with the company since late May. The cooperative connotation from calling this three-month period a “negotiation,” however, is misleading. Management mostly ignored proposals from the union, and were relentless in their demand for cuts in benefits, wages, and increased mandatory overtime.

In their last contract pitch, the company surprised everyone by asking for more concessions than they had in earlier contract proposals, further signifying no interest in compromise. The proposal included a 2% wage cut, no wage increases for the following four years (the entire length of the contract), the loss of two holidays, an increase in hours required for one to qualify for vacation, the loss of a bonus week of vacation pay for one-third of the work force, and changes to the worker’s Healthcare Trust. The company also requested for the ability to call in outside contractors as opposed to calling in qualified laid off employees, the right to hire from any source regardless of whether they are qualified or not, for Supervisors to assume jobs held by the wage worker, and finally, they proposed the ability to request unrestricted mandatory overtime from any worker.

Union president Tony Garcia explained the situation to reporters:
“The contract was open as of May 31st. We started meeting with the company in late April. We had a series of meetings with them; two in April, two in June, two in August. We worked under the current agreement until we could come to a new agreement… We couldn’t make it anywhere with them. As of our last meeting in August, they gave use their last best and final and told us we could go vote it and they would implement it on the 27th either way. It was a take it or leave it. We voted it on Wednesday and it was 52 to 6 NOs. We went back to work Thursday and our representatives contacted their representatives and asked if there were more negotiations to be had. We couldn’t get anywhere, they had nothing for us. And here we are.”

One of the strikers told us that on the morning of August 24, the entire workforce of the plant, in the first instance of all the factory's departments uniting, walked out.