‘I was naive’: after losing healthcare battle, factory workers fear next blow


Hard by the Hudson river about 14 miles north of Albany, the sprawling Momentive Performance Materials factory in Waterford has supplied generations of upstate New Yorkers with secure, well-paid, blue-collar jobs. Jobs that the US, and much of the industrialized world, has been losing and whose loss has set off a political time bomb. Now Momentive workers fear those jobs are gone.

Workers went on strike at Momentive last November hoping to fight off a new contract that would have slashed their healthcare and retirement benefits. The industrial action started in the white-hot heat of the election, and many of Momentive’s workers voted for Donald Trump, whose appeal to blue-collar workers helped Trump comfortably beat Hillary Clinton in Saratoga County, Waterford’s district.

The plant has another tie to Trump. Since it was sold by General Electric in 2006, one of its major investors has been Blackstone, the private equity firm run by Stephen Schwarzman, Donald Trump’s billionaire “jobs czar”. He is one of six billionaires – including the largest shareholder, Leon Black of Apollo Global – listed as Momentive backers. Between them they have a personal fortune of $24.6bn.

“I would pray to God that Donald Trump would reconsider what he is doing and have a talk with some of these people, especially Mr Schwarzman, about what is going on here in Waterford,” Dominick Patrignani, president of the IUE/CWA Local 81359 union, told the Times Union as negotiations unfolded. “We are extremely concerned with the loss of jobs, and this guy is supposed to be the new czar of job creation and growth.”

Now, after 105 days on strike and a tense, highly public battle, the billionaires have won. Momentive’s workers returned to the factory last week following a few days of “sensitivity training” to help them work with “scab” labour brought in to cover during the strike. The deal they struck has left many of them unhappy and worried about not just their futures but those of the many workers in similar situations across the US who contacted them during the strike.

“I was naive to this. I didn’t realise they were doing this all across the country,” said Robert Hohn, a Momentive employee for 16 years. The new deal leaves Hohn with an uncertain future as he attempts to cope with already outsized medical bills for his disabled wife. “We are not looking to own boats and yachts and stuff like that. We are looking to pay our mortgage. We are looking to send our kids and our grandkids to college. That’s all we are looking for it’s just something basic, simple, the everyday American dream needs.”

Camaraderie among workers was high during the strike. In the basement of the factory’s cafe, known as the Hotdog HQ, union leaders coordinated negotiations as workers carried piles of food (pastries followed by pizza and pasta) to feed their colleagues freezing on the frontline of the picket. Local businesses donated food and coffee. Drivers beeped support as they drove by workers warming themselves in front of barrel burners. Now some have been left feeling bitter and worried by the deal that was struck.

Jack Mack, 59, and his brother Kevin, 57, are second generation Momentive workers. Their father raised them on wages from the factory, and they in turn married, bought nice houses, raised their children and sent them to college on money made in the same plant. The two fish together and occasionally fly the hawks that are Jack’s passion. It is a comfortable, middle-class life. “If you were willing to work hard, you could make good money,” says Jack Mack, an electrician at the plant for 39 years. But that lifestyle, as many other blue-collar workers across the US and the developed world are finding, is under threat.

There is a quiet anger to Jack Mack’s voice after the vote. A controlled, methodical man with eyes as sharp as the birds of prey he loves, he picks his words carefully but there is no disguising his frustration and disappointment. “It’s not good, it’s not good,” he says. “Given the situation to make the right decision, the correct moral decision, they refused to do it. I mean, it’s plain and simple. We work in a hazardous environment and here we are fighting for healthcare.”

Mack is not a Trump supporter, the president has lived his life “as if he’s playing Monopoly”, he says. But many of his colleagues, he estimates 80%, including Hohn, are and remain so. For them, this is just the latest erosion of workers’ rights at Momentive since GE sold it. It hasn’t much mattered whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the White House – the common denominator has been that each time, management won and the workers lost.

Workers complain that successive CEOs have negotiated worse contracts and left shortly after with a big bonus. In 2008, Momentive slashed production workers’ wages by 25%-50%. In 2013 the company froze pensions for workers younger than 50. This time they came after healthcare, especially retiree healthcare.

In the meantime, the fortunes of Momentive’s owners and senior management have grown. The current CEO, the aptly named John Boss, took home $5.4m in salary and other compensation in 2015. His 2016 salary will be disclosed shortly; no one is expecting him to take a pay cut.

Momentive’s workers are not alone in their grievances. In 2016 dollars, the average hourly wage of a high school educated worker was $18.29 in 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Last year it was $17.25. Ignoring minor bumps and dips, it’s fair to say that a quarter of the US workforce (those with no more than high school education) have seen their wages barely keep up with inflation for more than 40 years – a period that enjoyed decades of spectacular economic growth, particularly for the top 1%.

Chatting over a beer after a day on the lines, Benny Patrignani, Dominick’s brother, says he has hope that Trump will bring change. “Both parties are so busy hitting each other, they haven’t been interested in us,” he says. The choice, he said, was: “Do you want to die by drowning or die by fire?”

Trump offers something different. “He doesn’t owe anybody,” Patrignani says. “You saw what happened with Brexit. Sometimes when you need change, you have got to get a little radical. We want to be respected. We want to be valued.”

But what Momentive workers have lost – along with many other skilled blue-collar workers at other plants – are many of the things that made workers feel valued: a guaranteed pension in retirement and healthcare after years of putting their own health at risk for the company. Time and again, Momentive’s workers talked in past tense about how they used to see their work as a career and looked back at years under GE as a golden era when they were part of a company they felt valued them as long-term employees.

Patrignani proudly chats me through the bewildering array of silicone-based products Momentive makes and that end up in everything from lipstick, car parts and the adhesives that are used in stamps and bandages to airplane seats and the glue that held the tiles on the space shuttle. Making those products involves an arsenal of hazardous chemicals and processes that require a highly trained and safety-conscious workforce. (Later he delivered me a hand-drawn diagram setting out the formula of many of the chemicals used.)

This is dirty, dangerous work. Workers talk about high rates of cancer among their colleagues, past and present. One wrong move could spell catastrophe not just for the plant but for upstate New York. As with miners, steelworkers and other blue-collar workers, the quid pro quo used to be higher wages and better benefits. Not any more.

“Everyone knows the risks,” Kevin Mack says. Dangers from hazardous materials come – “sometimes it’s in the blink of an eye, sometimes it’s long-term.” He had an operation for oral cancer last year, and Jack has had prostate cancer. Since they have been on strike, he’s met seven other men with similar diagnoses. Kevin said his healthcare was already inadequate to cover his family’s needs. Now he is being asked to pay into a health savings account to cover future costs.

Such a scheme might work for younger Momentive workers who don’t already have major medical bills and have enough time to save, but for Kevin, it’s too late. “I could never get enough money in there,” he says. And why are these changes necessary? he asks. To make rich men richer. “When are they going to stop?” he asks. “How much do they need?”

Kevin’s eyes are softer, sadder than his brother’s, you can see the stress in his face. Jack’s wife has medical insurance that will help pick up some of the slack in the future. Kevin is less lucky. He has spent 11 years in this house that looks down into the valley above the town of Postenkill and across to the Berlin mountains. He recently sold his snowmobile to meet some medical bills and wonders what’s next. “You get some good wind here,” he says smiling sadly. “Sometimes it feels like it might take the roof right off.”

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