Texas mill strikers hold out
and report on a battle by Teamsters in San Antonio fighting against a company that wants to break their union.
SAN ANTONIO, Texas--Union workers at the C.H. Guenther & Sons (CHG) flour mill, maker and distributor of Pioneer Flour, have been on strike for nearly nine months, following a walkout on April 25, 2011.
Workers, who are members of the Teamsters Local 657, have set up a small encampment near the grounds of the 152-year-old flour mill in effort to maintain visibility. They have a struggle on their hands, as management continues to enter the mill and Pioneer has temporarily replaced every striking worker with scab labor.
Tony Diaz, who has been a mixer and forklift operator at the mill for about 25 years, said the final blow came over implementation of a new health insurance policy that requires workers to carry the burden of higher out-of-pocket expense for relatively meager coverage.
Another point of contention has been the company's 401(k) policy, which allows the workers to put aside as much $925 of their own annual pay for CHG to match dollar for dollar. Striking workers, many who have been CHG employees for most of their adult life, make little more than $14 per hour--and that's before a percentage was removed for new health care costs. This means that most workers live paycheck-to-paycheck and are therefore entirely unable to pay anything into their 401(k).
Now that workers are striking, they only have access to the half of their 401(k)--the portion they paid in--while the other half the company was required to match is essentially being held hostage by management. Still, CHG was committed to set aside the $925 annually per worker in the off chance that any could actually afford to withhold that much of their wages.
When workers reached the end of the year and were unable to meet that $925 limit, the overages were set aside and paid out to management in the form of bonuses and presumably other perks from which workers derived no benefit.
Those overages certainly weren't applied toward improving working conditions. As a Teamsters Local 657 leaflet explained, temperatures inside the factory easily rise well over 100 degrees in the summer.
In a particularly ludicrous display of Pioneer's lack of concern for safety, a supervisor accidentally discharged a handgun and shot himself in the leg. This incident occurred on company property directly across the street from where strikers have set up their demonstration.
Feeling they were in a threatening atmosphere, Local 657 filed charges against the company through the National Labor Relations Board, but thus far, no action has been taken. One can't help but wonder what would have happened to strikers had this incident taken place on the picket line instead.
C.H. GUENTHER & Sons, Inc., makes huge profits and has massively expanded its operations thanks to the hard work of their employees. Workers like Diaz wonder why on earth their pay cannot be commensurate to those profits and the hard work they put in year after year.
Workers wonder how the company can get economic assistance from the city of San Antonio--a 15-year tax abatement for the purchase of the abandoned Richter Bakery--yet remain aloof to the economic situation of their employees.
It's a situation all too familiar in this country: Taxpayer money is thrown at a company to keep it afloat and help it expand, but the good fortune stays at the top while working people are forced to make a tough decision between put up with it or walk out.
"I need this job," 34-year Pioneer veteran Johnny Davila told the San Antonio Workplace Issues Examiner earlier this month. "I may very well lose this job, but at some point in a person's life, one has to stand up for what's right for ourselves, our family, the whole country." Davila's father was part of the last group of workers who struck at the mill in 1966.
The loyalty that workers like Diaz have shown to the company, coupled with the complete lack of commensurate benefit to the workers in appreciation for that hard work and loyalty, flies in the face of the commonly accepted belief that hard work eventually leads to success.
With the strike's one-year anniversary on the horizon, morale on the line has at times been understandably low. Despite appeals on the part of the strikers, very little in the way of solidarity has come from the local Occupy movement or the few area elected Democratic Party representatives in the downtown area.
The workers are increasingly looking to potential solidarity at the other Pioneer mills in the U.S. and overseas in the United Kingdom and Belgium to help bring pressure on management.
Many workers like Diaz have put decades in at the mill. They have no desire to wrap up a nine-month strike only to go back to the conditions that forced them out in the first place.