Momentive strikers bring their message to NYC

January 19, 2017

Tim Goulet reports on organizing by striking Momentive Performance Materials workers and their supporters to demand a fair contract from the company's hedge fund owners.

BUSLOADS OF striking workers from Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford, New York, arrived in New York City on January 13 to rally outside the offices of Apollo Global Management, the hedge fund that owns a majority of the company.

Workers hand-delivered a petition with 4,000 signatures from their community demanding Apollo negotiate a fair contract immediately.

The 700 workers at Momentive, members of IUE-CWA Local 81359, have been on strike since November 2, when the company tried to impose steep cuts in pay and medical and retirement benefits. Some 86 percent of the workers rejected the company's offer. Two days into the strike, management tried to offer a similar deal, which was rejected again by a similarly lopsided vote of 476 to 190.

Mike Harrington was one of the strikers who took the trip to Manhattan. "I went Friday to hopefully get the attention of the executives at Apollo, so they can see the faces of the people that their decisions affect," Harrington said. "I have also been overwhelmed by the support of others standing with us. So standing united with them was great."

Striking workers at Momentive Performance Materials rally on the picket line
Striking workers at Momentive Performance Materials rally on the picket line (CWA Local 1101)

The approximately 60 Momentive strikers who made the trip were joined by hundreds of people protesting in solidarity. Among them were local trade unionists--many of them from CWA District One--individual activists, and socialist organizations such as the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America.

When a nearby rally for health care justice called by National Nurses United converged with the strikers, the protest nearly doubled in size.

Union leaders led chants such as "What's disgusting? Union busting," while strikers held signs calling out Apollo CEO Leon Black, who is worth an estimated $5.1 billion and is ranked 45th on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans.

There is also a notable political dynamic to the strike. The Blackstone Group, another New York City-based hedge fund, holds a 7-percent ownership stake in Momentive. Blackstone, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, holding assets valued at over $300 billion, is run by Steve Schwarzman, President-elect Donald Trump's hand-picked chairman of a new council of strategic advisers that will aid the president on jobs, growth and productivity.

The Momentive strike should undoubtedly be seen in the context of an impending attack on unions and working-class living standards that will most certainly be the policy of a Trump administration. Schwarzman himself has stated that the Trump White House will likely pursue corporate tax cuts and further deregulation of industry.

MOMENTIVE, LOCATED 11 miles northeast of Albany, is a chemical plant that produces sealants and adhesives for the automotive and construction industries.

The company began imposing cuts not long after Apollo Global Management, one of the largest and wealthiest private equity firms, scooped up the plant from General Electric in 2006 in a leveraged buyout, renaming it Momentive.

Apollo borrowed $3.8 billion to make the deal and saddled the recently acquired company with the accrued debt. This has translated into an attack on workers' wages and benefits in an attempt to maximize profit and "stay competitive." The company even ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2014. This provided cover for the attacks, and made it difficult for the union to recover lost wages.

Momentive isn't the only company Apollo purchased. In 2007, Apollo bought Claire's Stores for $3.1 billion, and in 2008, Apollo and another private equity firm bought Caesars Entertainment for $8 billion.

At Momentive, not long after the buyout, 400 workers saw their pay cut--by as much as 50 percent in some cases. Some of the work has been outsourced, and pensions have been frozen for young workers. Momentive is now trying to slash health care for active employees and totally eliminate life insurance and health care for retirees--many of whom are afflicted with illnesses related to extended exposure to toxic chemicals at the plant.

In 2010, the union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and was able to win back pay for many of the workers affected by the cuts, only to see them reinstituted in a new collective-bargaining agreement.

This latest contract offer was the third in a row that included major concessions. This time, the workers said enough is enough, sparking the first major strike at Momentive since a three-month walkout in 1969. Workers are also on strike at another Momentive site in Willoughby, Ohio.

Operation of the plant's elaborate machinery and piping demands a highly trained workforce. Yet as soon as the strike began, management began busing in replacement workers--strikebreakers--to keep production running.

John Ryan, a 26-year Momentive worker, told the Waterford Daily Gazette that this "shows how very little they care about the community of Waterford and the workers."

A couple years, ago an explosion at the plant nearly killed two workers. "If it wasn't for our workers who did the brigade work to save their lives and get them to the hospital, they'd be dead," he said.

By the company's own metric, it takes multiple years to properly train workers to operate the plant machinery correctly. "They're going to be running equipment that they can barely run when we're in there...Well, it shows how little they care about us and the community of Waterford. They just care about their pockets," added Ryan.

THE SARATOGA County Sheriff's Department has been policing the 24-hour picket lines around the eight gates of the plant with a unit of cops, along with the department's Mobile Command Center. It was recently reported that the police have been removed after two months. The police presence reportedly was costing the company $7,560 per day, for a total of $540,000.

The police presence was undoubtedly used to monitor and intimidate strikers, while also providing cover for replacement workers entering and exiting the site.

Momentive is using a number of measures to attempt to break the strike. Since November, 27 strikers have been fired-- accused of "improper behavior" on the picket line, sabotaging equipment before the strike began or "violating company policy." Earlier this month, a truck driver was charged for hitting strikers while driving through the picket line.

Recently, Momentive sued in New York state Supreme Court in an attempt to impose added limits to picketing.

But not everything has gone the bosses' way. The state Environmental Conservation Commission warned Momentive CEO Jack Boss that the state will begin citing the company for violations relating to various chemical spills and waste handling issue since the strike began.

According to Momentive striker Mike Harrington, "In the month of November alone [when the strike began], there were more incidents reported than in all other months in 2016 combined."

Moreover, the Momentive strikers have been receiving considerable solidarity from fellow workers. Joe Tarulli, a Verizon worker from CWA Local 1102 in New York City, made a trip up to Waterford with several others to express solidarity, bringing money for the strike fund and barbecuing for workers on the picket lines. "CWA brothers and sisters have to stick together against these corporations," he stated.

The holidays were a particularly rough time for the strikers, but their spirits were lifted considerably by people in the community buying gifts for them and their families. When Amber Brooks, a Momentive worker, was asked what she wanted for Christmas, she simply replied: "A fair contract."

As CWA workers at Momentive continue to hold the lines in Waterford in order to win a fair contract, they will need solidarity and support from the community, the labor movement and the left. The Verizon Strike furnishes many great lessons how a corporate giant can be tamed; particularly when the rank and file are determined to fight.

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