Solvay Tour Reveals Union Action Results in Positive Change

USW officials toured three Illinois Solvay plants May 16-17 to view operations and check into reports of air quality issues and other safety-related matters at one of the sites.

The positive changes they saw were a direct result of union activism and solidarity to pressure local and corporate management to improve working conditions.

International Vice President Carol Landry, District 7 SubDistrict 1 Director Jose Gudino, District 7 Staff Representative Frank Shubert, Solvay Global Forum member Jeff Hill and Ashlee Fitch from the USW Health, Safety & Environment department toured Solvay’s plants in Chicago Heights, Blue Island and University Park. Joining them were Solvay officials Jerry Prete, North American labor relations director, and Ron Lehman, industrial director for the Novecare North American division.

The group toured each plant’s manufacturing processes and met with local union leadership. Chicago Heights produces silica, and the Blue Island and University Park plants are part of Solvay’s Novecare line that manufactures the chemical ingredients that go into making soap and other personal care products like shampoo and body wash.

Shubert said everyone was impressed with the cleanliness and organization at each facility, and he noted that labor relations are better as well. He said the number of grievances is down at the Chicago Heights and Blue Island sites and there have been no dismissals this year to date at those locations. In contrast, there were half a dozen terminations between those two facilities last June.

Also impressive was the pride members showed in their work, Fitch said.

“Across all the worksites our members showed a lot of pride in their work,” she observed. “USW members at these facilities do more than just take pride in their work; they take actions and work collaboratively to ensure that health and safety is the priority.”

Safety Issues Addressed

Shubert said the group wanted to check out the air quality and other health and safety issues Local 2011 reported at the company’s University Park facility. Both he and Fitch said they were pleased to see the ventilation problem and other safety issues being addressed.

The constant pressure on management from the local union, International, USW Solvay council and Solvay Global Forum pushed the company to resolve the lingering health and safety issues.

Solvay repaired the plant’s roof, repainted the walls, re-did the electrical wiring, set up fans, and began installation of an exhaust and ventilation system for the production area.

“It was clean and there was no offensive chemical smell, unlike when I was there in June of 2015,” Shubert said. “I’ve seen significant improvement there. The ventilation system is supposed to be up and running in July.”

Local 2011 President Michael Spicknall said the company had talked about installing the ventilation system since 2009 when Solvay acquired the University Park plant from Rhodia Specialty Chemicals. He also said the company had discussed installing safety lockers and finished the project in time for the tour.

Spicknall credited the International, Fitch’s help, officials’ tour of the facility and the USW Solvay council for pushing the company to do what it had talked about for years.

“I really think this tour and Ashlee helping us do an information request helped expedite these projects,” he said.

Local 2011’s activism, along with support from the International and the language within the Solvay Global Framework Agreement, resulted in a better relationship with local management.

University Park management is communicating every few weeks with Spicknall and the local’s vice president to get a sense of what is happening on the shop floor.

“Instead of telling us what we are going to do, management is consulting with us and asking what the employees think,” Spicknall said. “Management realized it had to work on resolving issues in-house because we have an outside council to go to for help. Most of the time, what makes our lives easier makes the company more money.”

Activism Builds Member Support

Spicknall said he believes the local’s resolution of the contract and push for solutions to the health and safety issues grew the members’ support for the union.

“A lot of members have no knowledge and background with unions, but they are starting to see how some members had the union step in when things happened to them at work that were not right. Our site is starting to understand we have the council, the International and other union members behind us, too, and it’s dawning on them why we need a union’s protection. Otherwise, the company can come in and do what it wants,” Spicknall said.

Pictured Top: Left to right; Ashlee Fitch (USW Health, Safety & Environment department), Joseph Bolton (production operator), and USW International Vice President Carol Landry. 

Pictured Bottom: Valentina Davis (Lab Technician)

This article originally appeared in "Chemical Solutions: Issue 7" which can be found in the publications section of our website.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Wayne Ranick at 412-562-2444

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor Jim McKay

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

United Steelworkers
Communications Department
60 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA 15222