Amidst a nearly month-long standoff, officials from the Imerys America talc-milling plant in Three Forks and representatives of the plant’s locked-out union employees have formalized plans to head back to the negotiating table.
When they return to contract negotiations on Sept. 11 and 12, company and union representatives will be joined by a mediator from Federal Mediation Conciliation Services, a government agency that seeks to resolve labor disputes.
According to Gary Powers, international representative for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the union that represents the Imerys workers in Three Forks, the mediator will be there “trying to help get a deal” but that mediation is a “non-binding process,” in which nothing occurs unless the parties reach a formal agreement.
So far, Imerys and the Boilermakers union in the plant, Local D-239, have had great difficulty doing just that: reaching an agreement on a contract to replace the one that expired earlier this year. Negotiations started in May and ended Aug. 2. That was when the company locked out the local union after members voted down what the company said was their last, best and final offer of a new contract.
According to the company, that last, best and final offer included a 3% increase in base pay, did not take away any earned pensions and included the same health benefits as salaried employees receive, as well as offering workers paid vacations, holiday and sick leave, among other benefits.
While the company argued the offer was fair, Seth McCauley, a plant employee and secretary for Local D-239, said Tuesday that the elements of the contract that Imerys is touting were “cherry picked” and are peripheral to the issue. In particular, he says, the company’s offer for wages increases of 3 percent, 2.5 percent and 2 percent over the next three years are not the issue.
“It’s not what we’re out here fighting for,” McCauley said from the picket line. “We’re fighting for seniority. We’re fighting for job security for the guys that have been 20 or 30 years. … And they’re trying to make it all about wages and us being greedy.”
Rather than asking for more, McCauley said, “We’re just trying to keep what’s in our contract.”
As the lockout has dragged on, state officeholders have become involved. On Aug. 9. Gov. Steve Bullock visited picketing workers and called for the company to end what he said was the state’s first lockout in the state since the 1980s. Bullock, Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox have all since urged the company to get back to negotiations in letters and statements.
McCauley says that such political pressure has been helpful as workers have been locked out and the plant has continued to operate with temporary replacement workers.
In a statement released Aug. 22, Jeff Jones, associate general counsel for Imerys Talc’s North America operations, said the company was "willing to meet with the union if a request was made.” On Friday, Aug. 24, the union did make such a request, by email. On Monday, Aug. 27, dates for the mediation were set, according to Powers.
In a statement provided to The Montana Standard Tuesday afternoon, Jones said, “Imerys was pleased that the union requested to meet and we welcomed this new development. We are hopeful an agreement can be reached that will get people back to work in the well-paying jobs that we hope to maintain at our Three Forks facility.”
While Powers says he’s glad new talks are set and that he will go in “with an open mind to compromise,” he would prefer that Imerys allow workers back to their jobs under the terms of their old contract while the negotiations persist, as the union has requested.
For now, however, that hasn’t happened.
As of Tuesday afternoon, McCauley said he was one of a group of about 12-15 pickets outside the talc-milling plant in Three Forks. While McCauley says he’s feeling optimistic about a new round of negotiations, he’s “still kind of leery” after the company “bailed” on previous promises he says Imerys management made to workers.
“We’re hoping it goes good,” McCauley said. “But you know you can only hope for so much after you’ve been lied to.”
While some distrust persists between the two sides, Bullock, Tester and Fox all responded to requests for comment on Tuesday with optimism. Bullock said he was “pleased that the company is coming back to the table” and “hopeful that a reasonable deal can be reached,” while Tester said he was “encouraged” and Fox welcomed the plans for new talks as “good news for the workers, their families and the Three Forks community.” Daines issued a similar statement, urging "Imerys to put these hardworking Montana boilermakers back to work.”
Tester is "tentatively scheduled" to visit Three Forks on Monday, according to a spokesperson.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have expressed their support for locked out workers at the Imerys plant in Three Forks.