A Special Strike: The 2019 Special Metals Strike in New Hartford, New York

The struggle of organized labor in Upstate New York and more specifically Central New York is one that has typically gone unnoticed on both a national and historical scale. This of course can be said about numerous regions throughout the United States among other sections of the global socialist movement for the enfranchisement of the working class and the fight against backwards reactionary culture. Lessons can be drawn from organized struggle regardless of where in the world they take place. This lack of attention paid to the struggles in this region of New York State is depriving socialists, communists, and the general working class of the stories and lessons of the multifaceted battle in defense of those who feel the harshness of capitalism in small town areas. The 3-week struggle carried out in 2019 by Special Metals workers in New Hartford, New York, is one of those that deserves more attention as something that can be learned from with lessons carrying over to other struggles including the fights against homophobia and transphobia, racism, and colonialist apartheid against Palestine.

The Impetus

Workers from Special Metals, a company known for producing nickel and cobalt alloys for various purposes and owned by Berkshire-Hathaway, officially voted to establish a strike on August 17, 2019, making this the first strike to hit this company since 1992. 211 production workers as well as 25 company technicians, giving a total of 236 workers, walked away from their posts in response to a falling out with the company after they had been unable to negotiate a new contract the day before. The main catalyst for the workers deciding to embark on this struggle being the history of the company’s enforcement of an insane working schedule. The Special Metals facility operates on a 24-hour, 7-day cycle, and at the time of this strike, the company had been calling for their employees to work 60 hours a week, 6 days a week, also requiring that they work numerous holidays. It was reported that the company utilized very little in terms of hiring temporary employees or hiring new full-time employees to help soften the burden of constant mandatory overtime.

Ron Zegarelli, at the time chief steward for the workers’ union, the International Association of Machinists Local 2310, put it bluntly. “They know what we want, we want time off.” Having actual time off is the core element to this situation that drove the workers to engage in the struggle of the picket. The grueling schedule and the lack of adherence to the previous union contract posed numerous problems for the workers in their daily lives, leaving many alienated not only from their work but from their families as well. Special Metals’ desired 60-hour structure would only exacerbate such problems, with workers being overworked to the point, again according to Zegarelli, that workers in the past wound up getting divorces due to how much they were forced to be at work instead of home. Lives and marriages have been ruined in the past by this company, and they were going to double down on the schedule structure that would only bring about further detriment to the health and well-being of their employees. One worker spoke on the issues that such a harsh and unstable schedule poses, noting however that due to his lack of seniority in the company, speaking on such an issue without the power that the union had begun to exert could mean the loss of his job.

The issue of holidays is an example of Special Metals blatantly breaching the prior contract they held with the union before the strike blossomed from the material conditions. As laid out by Jason Berdanier, vice president of the union at the time, workers were sick of “scheduling the holidays around Special Metals instead of having Special Metals schedule around us.” Berdanier also revealed that despite the fact that their contract explicitly stated that there were 13 holidays listed as days off, however only a fraction of these would actually be guaranteed paid holidays. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, and Good Friday were the only holidays that workers were guaranteed to have off. No Easter, no Martin Luther King Day, no New Years, several other federal holidays that were supposed to be in their contract were denied. All in all, the people who actually kept Special Metals running even to their own detriment simply wanted an end to, or even just a reduction of mandatory overtime and to have the full extent of their holidays be guaranteed.

The production workers were not in this struggle alone though. In a display of solidarity with their fellow proletarians, 25 technicians from Special Metals joined the picket line and worked to counter the divisive efforts of the company. Though the union’s national body was acting in ways that would concede to the demands of management, something that would ultimately go against the very foundation of labor unions and in blunt terms, screw over the workers, the technicians would not bow to these demands. A separate agreement was presented to the technicians holding greater pay options than production workers were offered, and the technicians rejected this offer, seeing it as an attempt to pit workers against each other and distract from the problems that the capitalists create for the proletariat. When asked about the IAM’s reactionary decision to take the divisive agreement, a worker only referred to as William said; “I don’t know, but it was some kind of bullshit deal that was allowed that worked to keep workers against each other.”

An additional statement from William draws several parallels to the situation that workers at the Redco Foods plant in Little Falls, New York dealt with in 2007. In both conditions, we see workers calling for solidarity with one another as they fight the common enemy of the working-class that is the bourgeoisie, as well as worrying about the future prospects for their children and other young people as they enter the workforce and wanting to ensure that their working conditions are at the best that they can be in contradiction to the reactionary choices of the bourgeois apparatus. William continues, explaining why exactly the separate agreement was rejected;

“We voted it down because we wanted to stand in solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters and not stab them in the back, and we’re also considering the next generation and know that we have to draw a line and fight it out now.”

In addition, though the strike did not go on long enough to allow for the creation of such, the idea of creating committees of rank-and-file workers designed to work in collaboration with international workers, particularly those who worked at the one Special Metals plant in England, would float around until a settlement had been reached.

Local Responses

Once again in parallel to the Redco struggle from 12 years prior, the fight waged by over 200 Special Metals workers was met with an overwhelming support from the local community in numerous forms. As the strikers carried signs with phrases such as “No Mandated OT” and set up a small makeshift rest area with shade and a grill to keep them fed, locals would show up throughout the day in support of their efforts and bring them food and water to fuel their fight, with one person even bringing an entire truck bed’s worth of water to keep the picketers hydrated in the August heat. Material support for the working-class battle against unfair contracts and endeavors to diminish the strength and solidarity of the workers is something that should always be appreciated as well as considered for other struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and other reactionary profit-driven isms.

Students from Hamilton College in nearby Clinton forged an outlet for support for the strikers, exemplifying the carryover of struggle in that people from different fields and different conditions must be able to act in solidarity together if there is to be any real chance at fighting the injustices thrust upon the proletariat and all oppressed people by the bourgeois political, economic, and social structures. Students Libby Militello and Brook Kessler, both of the Hamilton College Democrats, saw the Special Metals workers’ cause being of great significance, with Militello relating the struggle to her own family’s union ties. The Hamilton College Democrats, according to Militello and Kessler, supports fair working conditions, and thus felt it was part of their duty to provide moral support and engage with the picket line. Kessler specifically addressed the emotional and physical issues that can derive from excessive overtime, an indirect admission that the very structure of capitalism is designed to keep workers beaten down and ill, and in addition she referenced the various decisions made by the Supreme Court before and during the strike that sought to further weaken the power of unions in line with the anti-worker endeavors of the past.

Drawing parallels this time to the struggle waged by Remington Arms workers in late 2020 in nearby Ilion, the strikers at Special Metals even received lip-service support from both members of the New York State Assembly and the United States House of Representatives. State Assemblywoman Marriane Buttenschon sent a letter to both the company CEO located in Portland, Oregon, as well as the manager of the New Hartford plant where the strike was taking place. Playing both sides as is often the case with Democrats in their adherence to the bourgeois political structure, Buttenschon would both thank the company for doing business in New York and for the role that it has played in the state’s economy, and emphasize the necessity of upholding the collective bargaining process and calling for the demands of the workers to be properly listened to and addressed. Then-Congressman Anthony Brindisi, also a toothless Democrat, sent a letter to the New Hartford management as well as Ron Zegarelli. Brindisi essentially reiterated what was said by Buttenschon, highlighting the overtime concerns of the workers and encouraging the two parties to go back into negotiations.

The general response to the strike encompasses the varied ways in which a local community can rally behind those fighting against the unjust actions carried out by capitalists trying to exert their power over the workers. However, there is one instance of outside dissatisfaction with the strikers that raises several eyebrows. In an act of extralegal violence, Zegarelli recalled that at one point a driver tried to drive their vehicle through the protest! That people actually willing to attempt to do bodily harm and even kill their fellow worker in defense of the capitalists who would cast them aside at the drop of a hat is a testament to the effect that anti-worker propaganda pushed to enforce the hegemonic power that capitalists hold can have on the working masses. For some reason no charges were pressed on the man, perhaps showing that this was just some freak accident and not a deliberate act of terror against workers trying to get their just dues, but the common thread of seeing people call for running over protesters on social media and the various legislative measures introduced to protect people who do such a thing over the last half decade makes it hard to believe that this was simply a matter of someone looking at their phone or something else of the sort.

The Company Response

All while the strikers, legislature, and student supporters stressed that Special Metals was enacting policy that was in blatant terms screwing over their workers on numerous levels, the company asserted that the offer they presented before the initial fallout was “fair and equitable” according to the company’s director of communications David Dugan. In an act of “fair and equitable” negotiation, the company decided to utilize tactics that are in essence active attacks on the strikers by indirectly threatening their jobs. Dugan explained:

“As a result of the vote, we are executing our contingency plans, including having our salaried employees operate our equipment. Through these and other actions, such as leveraging other production facilities, we are well positioned to meet our customers’ needs as negotiations continue.”

In essence, Dugan admitted that the company would be putting other less-experienced workers to task in operating dangerous equipment and utilizing scab labor. Zegarelli, even as a representative of the union, showed worry for the salaried employees being thrown into the lion’s den, citing that the work conducted by the production workers is very dangerous and that the salaried workers were being put in danger for the sake of maintaining productivity and profit for Special Metals. That the company would try to force their production workers into a 60-hour work week with barely time off, and would throw their less experienced salaried employees into an environment that they don’t have nearly as much knowledge of in order to keep up the arbitrary notion of productivity under capitalism, exhibits a complete lack of humanity or respect for the working class on the part of Special Metals.

Special Metals incorporated certain elements of the Mohawk Valley Formula into their campaign against the strikers. In addition to utilizing scab labor and forcing workers from other departments onto the production line, the strikers were also being closely observed by a combination of local police forces as well as private security hired by the company. The police would ultimately be of no help when someone drove their vehicle into the picket line, and the strikers at no point threatened the use of violence, sabotage, or any other tactic that would physically disrupt the company’s proceedings. Using the factor of intimidation by having a police presence alongside a privately hired security seems like it’s overkill when the workers have picketed in an orderly fashion.

In what is perhaps the strangest and most unexplained act of retaliation carried out by the company in this situation, Special Metals delayed contract negotiations because of a meeting with the Department of Labor, because the company filed an unfair labor practice report against those on strike. No context is given as to why this was done. No claims of inflammatory language, no claims of intimidating other workers into joining them on the picket line, nothing that points out any concrete reason for such a report to be filed other than as an act of intimidation against the strikers by Special Metals themselves.

A Settlement Is Reached

In early September, 3 weeks after the strike had been initiated, the strikers and representatives from Special Metals were formally negotiating once more. After further deliberation with the help of a federal mediator, an agreement was reached and the strike was officially over. Though their demands were not fully met, the outcome of the strike is still ultimately considered a success. According to a statement from the IAM, the negotiations had resulted in a 4-year contract that created “a new process that will minimize how often members are scheduled for 12 hours,” as well as establishing wage increases and increases to certain aspects of the employees’ health care coverage. No word is given on the status of the guaranteed holidays, though it is presumed that this is addressed in the process of negating 12-hour shifts.

Lessons Of the Strike

The lessons of the 2019 Special Metals strike are similar to that of the 2007 Redco Foods strike. Ultimately, both exhibit the significance of solidarity and community building, especially when confronting issues as pressing as the mistreatment of workers under the profit-motive. Regardless of whether the cause is a workers strike, a pro-Palestine movement, a movement against transphobia or police brutality, or even a general rally in support of the socialist system and the communist goal, providing material and vocal support for such causes should be the goal for all socialists in our collective, global fight against the capitalist apparatus and for the improvement of society for all oppressed peoples. Only through collective action and solidarity do we stand any chance at defeating those who endanger the planet, endanger marginalized groups, and endanger workers of all kinds.

J.N. Cheney is an aspiring Marxist historian. His research primarily focuses on New York State labor history, branching into other facets of the history of socialism in the United States as well as the global socialist movement. He’s written for Midwestern Marx and has been published in their Journal of American Socialist Studies under both a penname and his given name. He is currently writing a book on the Little Falls Textile Strike of 1912. Read other articles by J.N..