Grinding Down the American Worker, French-Style

These stories are becoming way too familiar.  Another profitable company — this one headquartered in France — has once again ravaged a local community by insisting that its workers agree to staggering wage and benefit concessions.   The plant is located in tiny Keokuk, Iowa (which lies in the extreme southeastern corner of the state), and the company is the multinational sugar and starch manufacturer, Roquette Freres.

Roquette America, Inc., which has operated the Keokuk facility (a corn milling plant) for twenty years, locked out the 240 members of Local 48G of the BCTGM (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers) way back on September 28, 2010, after the union refused to accept the company’s greedy demands for concessions.

These workers have now been locked out for over three months.  One can only imagine what kind of Christmas they had.

Among Roquette’s demands: a four-year wage freeze for current employees and a $4 per hour pay cut for new hires; a pension freeze for current employees and no pensions at all for new hires; steep increases in health care premiums; the elimination of personal holidays and sick leave; and the right to arbitrarily replace current full-time workers with temps.  Simply put, it was an across-the-board assault on the whole contract, the usurpation of 20 years of collective bargaining.

One of the things that particularly rankles Keokuk’s community leaders is that the French company broke its promise.  In return for assuring the community and BCTGM union leaders that Roquette would be bringing high-quality jobs with middle-class wages, their company was given, literally, tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks, training and job placement allowances, along with other financial assistance.

Now, after having become well-established and profitable — on the taxpayers’ dime — they’ve decided to go for the jugular and take back what they gave.  Why?  Because under the cloak of a national recession and near double-digit unemployment, they believed they could do it.  It was nothing more complicated than that.  There was no grave financial crisis, no struggle with the creditors, no sense of urgency.  Given the economic environment, it was something they thought they could pull off.

Another thing that haunts the BCTGM is their belief that the lockout, itself, was premeditated.  The union believes that Roquette had already lined up a scab workforce to fill in for them — which is a violation of federal labor law (failure to bargain in good faith) — just in case the membership chose not to accept the deal.  Of course, the violation of federal labor law is one thing; proving it is another.

But based on what was included in their formal charges, the union appears to have a pretty good case.  They argue that for Roquette America, Inc. to have these many well-trained, specialized scabs (“replacement workers”) instantly available to run a facility this large and this complex couldn’t have been a spur of the moment decision.  These people had to have been trained months in advance.

In other words, if the union didn’t agree to accept Roquette’s across-the-board concessions, the company’s Plan B was to lock them out and run the place with a crew-in-waiting — already trained and ready to go.  Good faith bargaining was the last thing on Roquette’s mind.

What makes all of this so discouraging is that even in this post-recession environment, with consumer debt sky-high and unemployment hovering at 9.4 percent, American businesses are reporting record profits.  That bears repeating:  Businesses are experiencing record profits.  Of course, they are.  With wages and benefits continuing to be chipped away, why wouldn’t they?

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on January 14th, 2011 at 8:35am #

    Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed, Bobby Herring said.
    That ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their “Feed a Friend” effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one. Houston Chronicle

    Businesses are experiencing record profits.

    Ok let’s keep rolling.

  2. Habu said on January 14th, 2011 at 12:14pm #

    This article shows just how rapacious the corporate sector has become in the USA. Sad to say our politicians have been the key enablers here but the union bosses are complicit too.
    Just one point about this article which I find disconcerting. I don’t know what the author means by “post-recession environment”?
    To be sure, we are not out of this economic morass; in fact, all indicators show that the economy is worsening. The real unemployment rate is closer to 23 percent and growing. The dollar is losing value which means inflation is already rearing its ugly head.
    The saddest part of this well-written article is that the author seemed to get the big picture wrong. Are we already drinking the Kool Aid?