Dow Chemical locked out 230 workers from its Deer Park, Texas plant, just east of Houston, on Monday afternoon. The company retaliated against the workers after they twice rejected management’s “last, best and final” contract offers, first by 96 percent and then by 98 percent.
The workers, who are members of the United Steelworkers union Local 13-1, are opposing chronic understaffing and long hours of forced overtime, which cause fatigue and undermine safety in an already dangerous industry. The workers manufacture specialty chemicals used in paints, detergents, adhesives, automotive coatings and other applications.
USW Local 13-1, which has been in negotiations for a new contract since mid-February, had kept workers on the job under 24-hour extensions of the current labor agreement as talks continued. At same time, the union has filed impotent unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board over forced overtime, which the company has largely ignored. Having taken the measure of the union, Dow management went ahead with its threat, first announced last week, to lock out workers this Monday at 2 p.m.
A company spokeswoman said, “Although we have made progress on many elements, we have come to an impasse on others. Harmonization of collective bargaining agreements within Dow across North America is critical.” Although the company said union workers would be “welcomed back” once the contract is settled, Dow is using strikebreakers, including engineers and management personnel, to keep the plant operating.
Dow is engaged in a deep cost-cutting campaign throughout its worldwide operations. Driven by wealthy investors, the company carried out a $120 million merger with DuPont in 2017, creating the world’s largest chemical company in terms of sales. Just two years later the chemical giant is breaking up into three independent publicly traded companies in order boost profits and investor returns.
“The story is a focused portfolio that will create value for shareholders,” Jim Fitterling, who is now the company CEO, told the Wall Street Journal in February. While attacking workers in Texas, Michigan and around the world, Dow is spending $3 billion on stock repurchases, which has helped boost its share value on the New York Stock Exchange by 19 percent since it began trading in late March.
Facing a fierce struggle for global markets and profits, German conglomerate Bayer, a major competitor of Dow, is cutting thousands of jobs, including 4,500 in Germany alone, while waging a cost-cutting campaign against its global workforce.
Dow’s drive to “harmonize its collective bargaining agreements” means working with the USW to impose an across-the-board attack on wages, benefits and working conditions. The week before locking out workers in Texas, the company used the threat to eliminate nearly a third of the 690 jobs in chemical process operations, maintenance, logistics and labs at its Midland, Michigan complex to push through a wage freeze and other concessions. USW Local 12934 pushed through the deal last week, after rank-and-file workers rejected the company’s “last, best and final offer” in late March.
USW Local 12075 signed a five-year deal covering another 730 Dow employees in Midland, which includes higher out-of-pocket health care costs for workers, particularly the hundreds being transferred to the two other spun-off companies, Corteva Agriscience and DuPont.
“I think some of the guys with lower wages are more concerned,” Mikal Shanks, a Corteva lab analyst and unit bargaining committee member, told the Detroit News. “Not everyone has $1,400 to spend on medical bills before insurance kicks in, Shanks said, “They didn’t do this for our benefit. It’s all for Wall Street."
Dow now has 37,000 global employees, down from 56,000 prior to the merger. These workers are being driven to the wall in order to meet the new company’s target to generate more than $9 billion in profits this year.
Anonymous postings by Dow Chemical workers on the web site layoff.com give some indication of working conditions:
“I have to admit I used to enjoy working here … But man oh man are they pushing it when it comes to our workload. It creeps up, first an hour here and there, then you are expected to stay ten hours each day, and then you are lucky if you are doing less than 60 hours a week. It’s very gradual, so you just wake up one day and realize that you’ve barely seen your family awake except on weekends for weeks. Most of this is a direct result of layoffs. The company lets go of people, and then distributes their workload among the rest of us. And it’s reaching the point where I am not sure we can take any more without breaking. I’m not sure if I’m dreading next layoffs more because of a chance of being let go or because of a chance that I’ll be the one who stays.”
“With Dow’s new shift work (rotating shifts) we can plan on dying 4-5 years sooner than normal,” another worker wrote. “This will save the company an enormous amount of money should you die off sooner, saving them roughly 4 years of pension payout.”
And a third: “I would definitely fear staying with Dow for the long term more than being let go. You are not alone. Probably 90 percent of the hourly force feels this way!”
While these were comments of workers in other parts of the Dow Chemical empire, the concerns expressed by Deer Park workers about the safety implications of forced overtime and fatigue are particularly poignant given the two major accidents in the area, which have occurred in recent weeks.
On April 2, one worker was killed and another two injured in an explosion and fire at the KMCO plant in nearby Crosby, which produces coolant and brake fluid for automakers and chemicals for the oilfield industry. In mid-March, a fire burned for several days at the petrochemical tank farm in International Terminals, located a half mile from where locked-out Dow Chemical workers are now picketing.
On March 23, 2005, 57 oil refinery workers were killed and other 180 injured in the massive explosion and fire at BP’s Texas City refinery. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, BP sold the refinery to Marathon Petroleum Company.
In late March, six weeks after 900 workers at Marathon’s Galveston Bay Refinery in Texas City, overwhelmingly rejected the offer negotiated by the USW Local 13-1, the union pushed through a second contract. Local USW officials kept workers on the job under a “rolling” contract extension, similar to the one in Deer Park, and announced that they had no intention of calling a strike even if workers rejected the new offer.
In 2015, 1,200 Marathon workers were the last contingent of workers involved in the months-long strike to fight for improved wages and working conditions, including shorter work hours and measures to address worker fatigue. Though the workers were confronting some of the largest energy corporations on the planet, USW only called 7,000 of the 30,000 workers and after isolating them signed sellout deals, which did nothing to address workers’ concerns.
The militancy of the locked-out Dow workers, who have rejected two previous company ultimatums, is part of the rising mood of working class resistance throughout the US and internationally. Workers are increasingly coming into conflict with the corrupt unions, raising the need to build rank-and-file factory and workplace committees to fight for the social rights of the working class.