Lack of Workplace Structure Motivates Former Union Members to Organize Nonunion Solvay Plant

Those who have worked in a union manufacturing plant experience another world when they are employed at a nonunion facility.  It was their union experience that motivated three former union members to organize Solvay’s nonunion Pasadena, Texas, plant.

Marisela Payne, an outside operator, spearheaded the campaign. She was a former USW Local 227 member at the Chevron Phillips Petroleum plant, and told her coworkers that their working conditions at Solvay were nonexistent at her former employer.

“When we first started at Solvay, the company hired half of the workforce from Texas and half from Pennsylvania. Here, there is a certain standard; we will do what it takes to get the plant going,” Payne said.

Solvay shut down its plant at Marcos Hook, Pa., and opened up a new facility in Pasadena, Texas in 2015. It offered positions to the Marcos Hook workers.

“In good faith, operators were changing gaskets, doing maintenance work. What management promised and what happened were two different things. They promised a state-of-the-art unit and that the majority of it would be automated. But it wasn’t,” Payne said.

“We moved rail cars. We did our lab work at night during our time off work. We off-loaded chemicals from 18-wheeler trailers. We had all these jobs to do and I didn’t see us getting compensated.

“Plus, we had to keep up computer training. We were two years behind on our training. Some outside operators fell behind and it affected their training bonus,” she said.

Safety Risk

USW District 13 Staff Representative Marcos Velez said that management had workers driving 18-wheelers who were not licensed or certified.

“Workers would come in every day and management would make them perform work they felt they weren’t qualified to do,” Velez said.

If a worker performs a job he or she is not qualified to do, a safety incident could arise, he added.

Managers also did not respect their own policies and procedures. Velez said they would tell workers to take actions that violated company policy and operating procedures, and then discipline the employees for not following company policies  if an incident occurred.

Unsurprisingly, turnover was high.

Outreach Squashed

About a year ago, management announced a change in the work schedule. Unhappy with the new hours and impact on employees’ health and family life, workers signed a petition that Payne created.

“We were breaking production records. Safety was good. We asked management to please consider changing our hours back,” Payne said. “My shift presented the petition to the superintendent, who talked to the plant manager. He said management would not consider this and might revisit it in six months.”

Unhappy with the work environment, Payne started asking friends and family members who were operators and workers at the other Solvay plant in the area about their pay and working conditions. Next, she organized her coworkers. Two of them, Steve Tote and Kennieth Nelson, were former union members as well. Tote, a former Teamster, Machinists and USW member, came to Pasadena from the Marcos Hook plant.

“The CEO signs a contract. Marriage is a contract. This world is based on contracts. Why not in the workforce?” Tote said. “I don’t understand why all companies aren’t unionized. Everyone should have a contract.

“It’s not a matter of ‘us vs. them.’ There is a relationship between the company and the union.

Put a set of rules to it, and it makes it simpler. It’s especially critical to have rules in a new plant. It avoids complications down the road,” he said.

Nelson, a lab technician and former USW member, started at the plant in June 2015 and set up the lab with another person before the official November 2015 opening. He said his previous union experience was positive and thought that organizing the Pasadena plant was a good idea because “a union sets order and accountability for workers and management.”

He also felt a union was needed because of the plant’s culture.

“Many people were wearing many hats. You had a multi-billion dollar company being run like a mom-and-pop operation. Everything was disorganized. No one had accountability,” he said.

“I think with the right mindset, unions are healthy for management because everything is on paper and you know what is going on,” Nelson added.

Act Fast

Payne made an appointment with Velez, and she, along with Tote and Nelson, met with him at the Local 227 hall. Velez brought in District 13 organizer Dionisio Gonzalez, who provided the three workers with union membership cards and worked the organizing campaign.

Gonzalez set up a meeting and the three brought with them nine additional coworkers. They had 15 out of 17 signed cards. One person was out on long-term disability and the other was disinterested.

Gonzalez answered questions, led everyone through the organizing process, explained how management would react, and described the dues structure and how dues dollars are used.

Gonzalez filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union election, and a vote was scheduled one week after the meeting.

“With the help of Marcos, we moved quickly,” Payne said. “Before management knew it, the NLRB was there and they didn’t have much time to react.”

Local 13-227 President Steve Ballesteros, who also worked on the campaign and spoke at the organizing meeting, said that Pasadena management was surprised by the union victory.

“It was a two-day vote. The first day the plant manager was confident. After the vote, management was like, ‘What happened?’” Ballesteros said.

On Nov. 5, 2017 Payne and her coworkers overwhelmingly voted to join the USW in an NLRB election. Now, they face the next hurdle: Getting a first contract.

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