Contentious talks over a new contract for hourly workers at DuPont's Yerkes plant in the Town of Tonawanda were already catching the attention of local politicians when the negotiations took a bizarre turn last month.
The company and the union representing its more than 320 hourly workers are at odds over a new contract, with sticking points like proposed wages for new hires. Members of United Steelworkers of America Local 6992 have demonstrated outside the plant, and some workers have spoken out at city and town board meetings.
But the talks were roiled when a notebook used by some members of management's bargaining team was found by an hourly worker at the plant, according to union officials and memos from the plant. Inside were drawings and statements ridiculing and demeaning unionized labor, which infuriated workers.
One of the drawings depicted someone pushing a plunger to blow up the Yerkes plant, with the words, "Go Ahead" written above it. In 2010, an explosion at the site killed a contract worker and injured another worker. Another picture included a Native American shedding a tear.
The worker turned the notebook over to the union, which subsequently alerted the company about it. When word of the notebook spread among the workforce, Warren Hoy, the plant manager, wrote a memo to employees denouncing the drawings. A DuPont executive flew in from the company's headquarters.
In a statement to The Buffalo News, Hoy called the drawings "an isolated incident that does not reflect the views of the company, nor is it aligned with our core values. We have taken appropriate actions to prevent this from happening again."
All of this takes place against the backdrop of an imminent change for DuPont, which makes Corian used in tabletops and Tedlar for applications like solar panels at its Tonawanda plant.
On Aug. 31, the Delaware-based chemical giant is scheduled to complete a "merger of equals" with Dow, creating DowDuPont. Within a couple of years, the merged company plans to split into three, independent companies, marking another transition on the horizon.
For all of the upheaval the notebook caused, the task of reaching a new contract deal remains.
Wages a sticking point
The two sides last met to bargain on Aug. 2, and could meet again next week, said Gary Guralny, president of Steelworkers Local 6992. The contract was extended in mid-June, but that one-month extension has expired.
Guralny said DuPont is pushing for changes that would reshape the makeup of the hourly workforce.
"The company wants the unilateral right to subcontract our work within the facility, and they also want to create a two-tier wage system," he said. "They basically want the current employees to sell out the next generation."
Hoy, the plant manager, said the company is "committed to working collaboratively with the union to reach an agreement which continues to provide some of the best-paying jobs in Western New York, while also positioning the site to remain competitive in an increasingly challenging global market."
"For future new hires, the latest proposal includes a path to reach top pay rates for some roles, while also providing rates that are more consistent with the local market for others," Hoy said.
Disagreements at the bargaining table are a normal part of contract negotiations. But the talks were roiled by the notebook a manager had brought to bargaining.
An hourly worker found that notebook on the production floor, Guralny said. Inside, the worker saw page after page of rudimentary drawings depicting unionized workers as lazy, greedy and undermining the plant's competitiveness, with sarcastic comments scrawled next to many of them.
When word of the notebook spread among the workforce, Hoy wrote a memo to employees, vowing to address the issue.
"As plant manager, I accept responsibility for the environment that allowed these actions to occur," he wrote to the workers. "I am not making any excuses. It is clear to me that emotions are running high on all sides, which is distracting the organization from focusing on what is critical to all of us, including reaching an agreement on the contract."
Guralny said two managers who served on the bargaining team lost their jobs, and the three other members of the bargaining team were replaced. Hoy declined to say if the two managers were fired, saying the company doesn't comment on personnel matters, but he confirmed the bargaining team had been changed.
Guralny said he and other union members were outraged at the drawings and derogatory comments about organized labor. "We were taking bargaining very seriously and trying to get a contract in place," Guralny said. "And it seemed like the company wasn't taking it very seriously."
A DuPont worker who is Native American was offended by one drawing depicting a Native American shedding a tear – evoking an anti-pollution TV ad from the 1970s – as he watched the Yerkes site's product lines move to plants in North Carolina and China. The message written alongside it: "Get involved now before it's too late." The worker sent a lengthy letter of complaint to the plant manager and to DuPont's corporate offices.
Meanwhile, a DuPont official flew to meet with Guralny. "He apologized for the book and was hopeful we could move negotiations forward," Guralny said.
Negotiations reach city leaders
Apart from the furor over the notebook, workers have rallied outside the plant, and some have addressed meetings of the City of Tonawanda Common Council and the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island boards, to draw attention to the contract talks, Guralny said.
One worker, Peter Deeb, told the City of Tonawanda Common Council that the plant's workforce has a significant local economic impact.
"A few of us live here right in the City of Tonawanda, quite a few really," Deeb said, according to minutes of the July 11 meeting. "A lot of people drive right though the city and will stop at Tim Hortons; they’ll stop at McDonald’s, maybe at Shanghai or Mooney’s and grab some lunch. So, it benefits everybody in our community."
Deeb also raised concerns about DuPont using replacement workers, in the event of a strike or a lockout, and how that could impact plant safety.
City of Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis wrote a letter to Hoy echoing those concerns. "I don't want unqualified workers operating the equipment, when many of our residents are downwind of the DuPont plant," he said in an interview. Davis is also the president of an air traffic controllers union local.
Davis also said the city benefits from the plant's workers making a good wage, being able to maintain their homes, and spend money with local businesses.
Hoy said DuPont's "hope and expectation" is to reach agreement on a new contract. "This is the best way to ensure continued opportunities for Yerkes employees," he said.
The company's proposal includes wage increases and "added layoff protection" over the life of the proposed four-year deal "which helps protect the standard of living for current employees," he said.
As for whether the plant would consider using replacement workers, Hoy said: "We do not believe that a work stoppage of any kind will benefit anyone. However, should there be any labor disruption before these negotiations are completed, we are committed to safely continue plant operations to ensure continuity of supply for our customers."
Plant preparing for merger
Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, compared the situation at DuPont to recent labor disagreements at other companies.
"The problem of concessions where we don’t really think the company really needs them was at the heart of the Verizon strike, and is also at the heart of the AT&T struggle," Lipsitz said. Verizon Communications workers went on strike in 2016, and AT&T wireless workers are negotiating a new contract.
"We’ve had a lot of unfortunate experience with companies coming after workers and unions where they don’t really need the concessions they’re demanding," Lipsitz said.
Just around the corner is the DuPont-Dow mega-merger. The combination of the two Fortune 500 companies was announced in late 2015, and should be completed at the end of this month. Eighteen to 24 months after the merger, three independent, publicly traded companies are expected to emerge through spinoffs.
DuPont used to have a second plant in the region: a chemical-making operation in Niagara Falls. That plant was shifted to a spinoff company, called Chemours, in 2015, and was shut down the following year as part of a broader cost-cutting effort.
The steelworkers union calls the Tonawanda plant profitable, with strong demand for its products. But Guralny said the union still wants strong "successor language" in the contract, to protect its workers when the DowDuPont merger takes effect.
Hoy said both of the production units at Yerkes are expected to be part of a specialty products company once the three-company spinoff occurs. "I don't believe the upcoming merger will impact our contract negotiations," Hoy said.