How Solidarity Triumphs Over Corporate Greed – OpEd

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Management at Amfuel tried to bully Jo Tucker and her 200 co-workers—most of them Black women, a number of them single moms—into accepting dozens of unnecessary concessions in a new contract.

For four years, however, the manufacturing workers in Magnolia, Arkansas remained strong and resolute as the company tried to break the union and wear them down.

And then, just as the workers prepared to launch an unfair labor practice strike in the spring of 2024, Amfuel surrendered. Because of their unflinching solidarity, the workers beat back the concessions and won a contract with life-changing raises, additional holidays, and other benefit enhancements.

“We didn’t lose anything,” noted Tucker, a negotiating committee member and the financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 607L. “That was good.”

Employers frequently try to kill morale, punish workers, or force them into concessionary contracts by dragging their feet at the bargaining table. But as union members at Amfuel and other companies prove time and again, a united front sends the bullies packing.

“We all hung in there together,” Tucker said of the workers, who make fuel cells for military helicopters and fighter jets. “It wasn’t easy. But we prevailed, and I thank God that we did.”

“It was teamwork,” she added. “Everybody was working together.”

As the workers geared up for bargaining in 2020, Amfuel received an infusion of money from new investors and additional support from the Defense Department and local community leaders. The company embarked on a growth plan, intending to rely ever more heavily on the skilled workforce. It even bragged publicly about giving workers a bigger voice on the job.

Yet Amfuel stunned workers with a contract proposal demanding nearly 70 concessions.

Among other untenable proposals, Amfuel wanted to abolish seniority, reduce vacation pay, and eliminate the grievance process, which would have made it easier for management to try to eliminate workers for any reason or none at all.

Tucker, who’s worked at the plant for nearly 30 years, feared the company would use the changes to get rid of dozens of her friends and neighbors.

“We knew we could not let them have that,” she said. “We knew that they were trying to break us, and the only thing we had was each other. We just knew to stick together. We really did.”

Amfuel not only dragged out the bargaining process but encouraged workers to leave the USW—a ploy that only drew the union members closer together.

Management simply tried picking on the wrong group of people.

Tucker and her co-workers share a strong bond forged by many years of working alongside each other—and by the pride that comes from making the bullet-resistant fuel cells that help protect America’s military. That pride swelled a few years ago when the workers visited a local airport to see one of the jets they helped to make.

In addition to the camaraderie on the job, workers in the small town often see each other in churches, grocery stores, and restaurants. Tucker said she pressed on less for herself than for the bargaining unit’s single moms, some of whom risked having to shoulder new jobs—along with the possibility of longer commutes and overnight shifts—without a strong contract at Amfuel.

“When you have small kids, you can’t just pick up and work out of town,” she explained. “You don’t get to see your kids. That’s hard on a child.”

As the talks wore on, the workers organized a toy drive, picnic, holiday party, and other events to help sustain unity. They wore union-issued T-shirts to build morale and filed charges against the company’s unfair labor practices.

Local 607L activists handed out flyers, held regular meetings, and took other steps to keep workers engaged.

USW members from other locals in Arkansas as well as from Louisiana and Texas lent support, driving home the message that all of Magnolia had a stake in the workers’ fight for a fair contract.

“It helps everyone,” said Local 607L President Larry Clayton, noting he and his colleagues support local businesses and pay the taxes supporting schools and community amenities.

Despite the unfair treatment they faced every day, Local 607L members continued performing their work with the utmost skill and professionalism.

“Everybody still showed up and did their job. We worked through the pandemic,” said Clayton, pointing out that employers provoke these kinds of battles to demean workers and deny them their fair share.

“They wanted to rewrite the whole contract to where the company has all the power and the people working on the floor have none,” observed Clayton, who’s worked at Amfuel for nearly four decades. “It would be like not having a union at all.”

Then, as workers prepared to launch the unfair labor practice strike they never wanted, Amfuel finally corrected course. It dropped demands for the concessions, began listening to workers, and agreed to a fair contract.

Tucker and Clayton recalled a particularly poignant moment at the contract ratification meeting when a worker with a handful of children explained how the significant raises would enable her to support her family in a way she long wanted. Other members shared similar thoughts.

“I was excited for them,” said Tucker, who hopes the victory inspires other workers to keep fighting for what they deserve.

“Stick together,” she advised. “Stay the course. Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, you are winning.”

David McCall

David McCall is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

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