Walkouts at two critical West Virginia metals production facilities

WSWS urges steelworkers to contact us for help in setting up a grassroots committee.

Metallurgists in the Huntington, West Virginia area at two separate facilities resigned on Oct. 1 after their contracts expired with no new agreements in place at their respective companies.

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Four hundred and fifty workers at the Huntington Special Metals Corporation plant and about 50 workers at Sulzer Pumps, near Barboursville, are picketing around the clock in front of their factories to prevent the entry of scab crews. Special metal workers are organized under United Steelworkers Local 40; Sulzer Pumps workers are members of IndustriALL Global Union, an affiliate of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Sulzer Pumps workers are on strike over demands by the company to change seniority rights, health care, wages and sacking policy. At issue in the specialty metals dispute is a steep rise in health insurance costs and a pay raise offer from the company that is not what workers are asking for. The company would require employees to pay $ 1,000 per month for a family health plan, about $ 750 per month more than the current cost.

Special Metals workers have received a surge of public support on Facebook for their strike. One worker explained that the company “throws money into unnecessary projects but does not invest in the machinery that runs the place. This in addition to wanting to reduce our wages, increase our insurance and take more of our time than we actually do. While everything around us has increased by 30% over the past year. It’s more than just a pay cut.

Another worker added: “PPE and safety policies come to mind more than anything else. They are only applied when it is beneficial to the business from what I have witnessed.

A supporter of the strike in the local community expressed growing recognition that the struggle of West Virginia workers is part of a larger social conflict: “Everything is about to explode across the country. New York is begging rail operators before having to shut down subways. People are fed up with being treated like disposable goods. I see half the country quitting work.

“People are paying higher taxes, food prices have skyrocketed and people’s wages are staying the same,” said another commentator. “They are overworked and underpaid.

Although the two factories are only six miles apart, there is no indication that the two unions are in communication, let alone coordinating the work stoppage. Reports from multiple media suggest unions are discouraging workers, including those on the picket lines, from speaking to the press or to the public outside of calling attention to the rare official statements from union headquarters .

The unions, acting as little more than spokespersons for the company’s management, fear the West Virginia labor movement will join the broader opposition that is growing nationally and internationally. Across the United States and in industries such as manufacturing, health care and education, workers are speaking out against conditions of oppression and attacks on their standard of living. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, capitalists demand that workers stay at work risking their lives. The cost of the pandemic is being imposed on workers through unbearable working hours, cuts in compensation or layoffs.

Beyond the workshop, the assault on living conditions is felt in massive increases in consumer prices for basic commodities, continued supply chain disruptions, the ever-present health risk. elderly people in care facilities, unvaccinated children required to attend schools in person. , and governments’ refusal to implement bailout policies on masking, vaccinations and shutting down non-essential businesses.

In Huntington, the situation is ripe for a wider wave of strikes to develop. A contract covering 1,000 nurses and support staff at Cabell-Huntington Hospital is due to expire on November 2. recorded the highest rate of acceleration of new cases in the country. The intensive care units are full and all elective surgeries have been canceled. Meanwhile, schools are teeming with epidemics, with no plans to return to distance learning.

This is a direct result of the policies of Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. Both parties, at all levels of government, are working to keep the economy running at full speed, regardless of the cost to public health.

The strikes at the two Huntington metal processing plants are of objectively strategic importance. Special Metals’ sprawling plant is the largest nickel alloy production plant in the world. When Special Metals parent company Precision Castparts was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 2016, the $ 37 billion deal was called the largest ever by billionaire CEO Warren Buffett. It is a Fortune 500 company and ranks among the top suppliers to the aerospace and defense industry. Oregonian describes Mark Donegan, director of Precision Castparts, based in Portland, Ore., as having “long been one of the highest paid CEOs in the Northwest” with an average annual compensation of $ 12.3 million, not counting at least 50 million dollars in stock.

The alloys produced at Huntington are used in military jet engines, commercial aircraft, deep-water oil rig drilling equipment, power processing facilities, and deep-water oil rigs. The 130-acre Huntington facility operates two 35-ton electric arc furnaces, a 24-ton vacuum induction melting furnace, and rolling mills capable of producing coils of metal up to 60 feet wide and weighing 15 tons.

Special Metals produces “superalloys” capable of withstanding temperatures of 760 degrees Celsius or 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. (Consider Venus, the hottest planet in the solar system, at around 475 degrees Celsius.) These are massive and dangerous operations that require a high degree of skill of the workforce to operate safely. According to comments from friends and family of the strikers on social media, the company puts its employees to work 16 hours a day.

Sulzer Pumps, also an integral part of the global economy, requires a highly skilled workforce for its precision machinery and foundry. Sulzer is a Swiss-based company with manufacturing and service facilities in 180 locations around the world. The Barboursville Parts Manufacturing Center produces parts for pumps required for oil refineries, barges, and critical water, energy and chemical supply infrastructure.

Both companies are putting the impact of the global economic downturn on the shoulders of their workforce. In addition to falling demand in the airline industry due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, Precision Castparts / Special Metals also lost a huge chunk of revenue after the Boeing 737 fleet came to a standstill. Max.

Sulzer Pumps chairmen Peter Löscher and Greg Pox-Guillaume boasted in a letter to shareholders that the company “has bounced back with good momentum” after countries lifted lockdowns and put in place an aggressive “ramp” to downsize.

To fight back, workers must recognize what they are fighting against. They face not only individual business leaders, but a powerful ruling class of capitalists, their political representatives, and the world capitalist system organized for the sake of their corporate profits. As the pandemic has revealed, Republicans and Democrats, as well as unions aligned with the current ruling faction, are united to uphold this system, no matter what the cost to the working class.

More than 708,000 Americans have died from Covid in the past 18 months; worldwide, the official toll has reached over 4.5 million and the reality is probably several times higher. If the pandemic is to be stopped, the working class must stop it. This initially requires the creation of grassroots security committees in each workplace, independent of capitalist parties and unions.

October 24, World Socialist Website and the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees (IWA-RFC) are hosting an online webinar to explain the urgent need for a COVID-19 eradication policy. A panel of scientists and epidemiologists will provide the critical knowledge needed to develop a broad and international political movement to finally end the pandemic.

We urge all workers to attend, share and help build for this critical event. Contact us to start setting up grassroots committees in your workplace.