UPDATE (March 13, 2020 10:08 p.m.):
BEVERLY, W.Va. – The Teamsters communicated to AHF Products that they would return to work at the next scheduled shift, which is Sunday evening.
Also, the Teamsters are planning to meet again on March 30 and 31 to resume bargaining.
Stay with 12 News as we will continue to follow this updating story.
According to a release sent out by the Teamsters Local No. 175 Union, the reason for the strike is “a safety issue that has fallen on deaf ears for far too long,” in this instance, the union’s members are claiming that an industrial sweeper has been out of commission for more than a month.
The sweeper scrubber “wets and vacuums dust” in the Dry Shed of the building, which is where dry lumber is stored before it is turned into flooring, the release states, and “fork lifts that carry the lumber to the shed” bring in “dirt and limestone from the yard area, which is then mixed with any bird excrement” on the floor.
What the sweeper does, the union states in it release, is that after the lumber has dried in the shed and the dust of the “limestone and other substances” is ground into dust, the sweeper wets down the dust and cleans the area, which makes it so employees who work in that area do no inhale the dust.
The release goes on to state that AHF has not provided additional protective gear to make up for the sweeper’s inoperation.
In response to the strike, Blaine Emery, the plant manager at AHF Products, said that dates were given to the Teamsters union to “come back to the negotiation table,” and that “the present work stoppage has been telegraphed by the union for weeks,” and that “the new claims made are simply a pretext to apply leverage.”
Emery continues to say that AHF Products has a “safety-first culture” and that the company “put[s] the safety of [its] employees before everything else [it] does,” and that “[i]t is a common tactic for a union to mischaracterize a contract dispute as a safety dispute.”
As for the claim of the broken sweeper unit, Emery said that “[t]he sweeper that is referenced is only one part of a dust control system with redundant exhaust fans that are fully operational,” and that AHF Products has “an incident rate far below the industry average.”
Prior to this strike, AHF Products management and Teamsters Local Union No. 175 members had been in contract negotiations, which the union voted against in a 396-26 vote. Since that vote on Feb. 23, the members of the Teamsters union, which comprise about 480 of AHF’s approximately 600 employees, have been working without a contract.
Without a contract, AHF Products doesn’t have to deduct union dues from its employees or go to arbitration with Teamsters Local Union No. 175 should an issue arise; however, members of the Teamsters union are able to strike without notice, as they did in this situation.
The cause for tension between the union and the company came about when AHF Products “proposed to eliminate the pensions and charge 92% more for health insurance,” according to the Teamsters union. AHF responded by saying it was not taking away anyone’s pensions, but was transition to a 401k system, which 271 employees were already invested in with a company match.
A representative from AHF Products went on to say that the company was simply no longer paying for the 201 employees who have pensions, but instead wanted to freeze the pay going into the pension, and transfer that pay into a 401k which they would pay a higher match rate to help get them caught up to employees who already had been enrolled in the program.
As for health insurance costs, that same official from AHF Products stated that the current coverage costs are only raising up to 12% of an individual employee’s pay, which is much lower than the national average of 27%, and that recent wage increases given to employees more than offset those rising costs.
On March 11, Teamsters sent an email to AHF Products requesting educational meetings on COVID-19 be offered for the “safety of the employees and local community,” and that the company should “relax on the attendance policy” in the event an employee is sick or showing symptoms of the virus, according to the release.
Despite the Teamsters union claiming that AHF Products has yet to respond to said email, Emery stated that “[AHF Products has] been covering best practices for protecting against coronavirus outbreak in pre-shift meetings.”
Emery also said that “through the next two weeks, the company will provide for all hourly employees to take excused time off when the employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, are quarantined due to exposure, or need to care for a dependent or their parents who have COVID-19 symptoms.”