Fieldsboro, NJ. They took the fight right into the lion’s den, and came out winners. Big winners.
UE Local 155 workers at the Stepan chemical plant in Fieldsboro, NJ, endured a 14-week lock-out, but showed grit and solidarity to carry on and win. The lock-out ended on May 2 with an excellent contract, ratified by a 33-2 vote, and the workers were back on the job two days later. The members shared in the victory, showing unity and dedication, buoyed by the support of the national union, regions and locals that lent their moral and financial support.
“We couldn’t have picked a better union,” said Chief Steward Ron McCullough.
“They stood by us the whole time, made sure we were taken care of, and kept us strong in the fight. All of the guys are really happy right now. We’re proud to call everybody in UE our brothers and sisters. When people came from all over Wisconsin and Illinois come out and picket with us in 35-degree weather, and rain, we knew we were with the right union.”
The turning point in the battle came a week earlier, when six Local 155 members traveled to Stepan’s headquarters in Northfield, IL, to address the shareholders meeting. While about 30 brothers and sisters from six UE locals in the Chicago/Milwaukee area and the Western Region, stood vigil in 35-degree, sleeting weather, the Stepan workers showed the company how wasteful their lock-out had become.
Using documents produced by the company at a hearing on the workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits, Local 155 was able to prove that management had burned more than $1.8 million on added expenses for the lock-out. Stepan CEO F. Quinn Stepan, Jr., appeared shocked by the amount, saying he was led to believe it was “only” about a half-million dollars.The raise that the workers demanded and the company refused to provide would have cost just $70,000 annually.
“That was the turning point,” UE Field Organizer Jim Ermi said. “The documents we showed to the directors and shareholders told the whole story. Two days later, I got a phone call saying they wanted to talk to us right away.” The two sides met Monday, May 1, and had a tentative agreement before the close of business. “This is a tremendous victory for Local 155, and for UE nationally,” said UE Gen. President John Hovis. “It shows that even when it looks like unions are taking it on the chin everywhere, you can stand up to the boss and win.” “It’s also an incredible show of solidarity,” UE Gen. Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Klipple added. “UE locals around the country passed the hat and put together thousands of dollars to make sure that their union brothers in New Jersey wouldn’t lose their homes, or their cars, or their health coverage in this fight.
It was a real-life example that we’re all in this together.”
The documents that the workers presented to the shareholders showed Stepan spending $130,000 per week on the lock-out. More than $53,000 was spent just to clean up chemical leaks and spills that occurred because highly skilled technicians were walking a picket line instead of tending to the machines. At least two chemical leaks threatened the community surrounding the plant. The last happened on April 17, involving sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain and can cause severe reactions in people with asthma and other respiratory disease. The leak was so intense that five union picketers required attention from paramedics.
Environmental groups shared workers’ struggle
The hazardous nature of the work helped the workers gain the support of community and environmental groups. Local 155 joined with the Sierra Club, New Jersey Work Environment Council, New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG), and state and local labor groups, including the Burlington County Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, in a March 22 press conference to raise public awareness about scab workers dealing with highly toxic chemicals in their neighborhood.
“Workers are the first line of defense in case of a chemical leak or terrorist attack,” said Chief Steward McCullough said at the press conference. “We should be back on our jobs working to make this plant safe for our neighbors.” In a joint letter to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), the groups demanded that the state investigate whether the plant is following guidelines on plant safety and security, and that DEP inspectors would regularly monitor the plant to ensure it was being safely run by replacement workers.
Local 155 offers its thanks to these groups, who generously lent their time, resources and financial support to help the locked-out workers’ cause. “We are truly amazed at how many people we had never met made our fight their own,” said Steve Cameron, a Stepan employee and a member of the UE Bargaining Committee. “Without them on board, things would have been a lot tougher.”
“Congratulations on your victory,” wrote Amy Goldsmith of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. “It was a pleasure to stand with you at the press conference outside the gate several weeks back. We hope that with your members back in the facility there will be no more chemical leaks into the environment and community. United we stood and won!”
Solidarity in Local 155
The lock-out at Tinius Olsen in Horsham, PA, just a short trip from Stepan Fieldsboro and also represented by Local 155, is still going on. The difference there is that because it was unquestionably a lock-out, the workers there receive unemployment benefits under Pennsylvania law. In a great display of solidarity, the workers from Tinius Olsen said “No, thanks” to Easter/Passover holiday packages from the Local, instead insisting that the money be spent on the workers from Stepan, who were denied unemployment insurance. Additionally, the lock-out solidarity fund collected more than $8,000 from UE regions, locals, and individual members, as well as other unions and labor groups. Now that money can go to help Tinius Olsen workers as their struggle for justice continues. The lessons of the Stepan fight will not be lost there.
“You shouldn’t have to endure a 14-week lockout to get a union in this country,” said Bob Kingsley, UE Director of Organization. “A courageous group of workers triumphed at Stepan based on protest and perseverance, but their struggle points out the deepening workers’ rights crisis facing all of us.”
Kingsley said the Stepan experience will become a new arrow in the quiver of labor law reform advocates. It is no coincidence, he noted, that U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the Congressman representing the Fieldsboro area, is among the latest co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation now before Congress that would strengthen the right to organize and streamline the process of securing a first contract. Rep. Smith signed on as a co-sponsor only after Stepan workers traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet personally with him about their struggle.