One year after Bradken Chehalis Foundry workers unionized — marking the largest Lewis County labor organization in the last three decades to do so — thwarted contract negotiations have lead to charges being filed against the company and increasing employee frustration.
Nearly 100 workers at Bradken voted last year to join the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, a shift from a nationwide, decades-long drop in private sector unionization.
The organization at the steel castings manufacturer marked the first major Lewis County unionization in more than 30 years, according to Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Labor Council.
Now, Guenther said, the area is counting on Bradken employees to help rebuild the middle class because erosion of organized labor has contributed to economic decline.
But, employees and union representatives at Bradken are reporting little progress in collective bargaining. With no contract in place, discontented workers could begin circulating a petition to decertify the union after today.
IAM filed charges against Bradken last week with the National Labor Relations Board for regressive and surface bargaining, which could block a decertification effort.
The company’s actions, Guenther said, represent typical corporate stalling tactics.
“They’ll just delay, delay, delay,” Guenther said. “They’re not negotiating, in my opinion, in good faith.”
The NLRB is investigating the charges, which typically takes four to five weeks, according to a representative in the Seattle office.
In the meantime, if employees did circulate a petition, the NLRB would consider the charges before determining whether or not to prevent the decertifying the union.
The union filed the surface bargaining charge because the company has only allowed a few hours for negotiating on two or three days per month, which has not resulted in enough time to work out a contract, according to Joe Kear, an IAM business representative.
“We should have been done in a year,” Kear said, noting Bradken may be purposefully stalling negotiations in hopes of eliminating the union. “It’s a tactic that some companies do.”
IAM brought the regressive bargaining charge because the company’s wage proposal would guarantee less pay for 75 percent of the employees, Kear said. Though current workers would not suffer pay cuts, Kear said, the union hopes to solidify an agreement with increasing wage scales.
Samuel Williams, a Bradken thermal operator and negotiating team member, said the union will not approve a plan unless it includes raises for the majority of workers.
“It would guarantee that for future employees and that’s what is important,” he said.
The big issue, Kear said, is Chehalis employees are earning a minimum of $4 an hour less than their counterparts at Bradken’s Tacoma facility for similar work.
“We’d like to see that gap closed,” he said.
Bradken representatives did not respond to calls for comment Thursday or Friday. But last year, Bradken’s spokeswoman, Allison Adam, cited different labor markets for the inequity.
While Kear agrees that Tacoma and Chehalis have some differences in costs, he said, they are not comparable to the wage discrepancy.
Bradken employees are growing increasingly frustrated with delayed bargaining because workers have yet to see improvements, Williams said.
“Things are the way they always were,” the two-year employee said. “I can’t say there hasn’t been progress but I don’t feel like there’s been progress.”
The union and Bradken have agreed on some contract provisions, such as a non-discrimination policy and a grievance process but have yet to agree on economic factors including wages, benefits, vacation and sick leave.
“I can’t imagine any company would want a union there,” Williams said, noting he understands keeping wages low to increase profits. “But we really aren’t making family-wage levels.”
A union survey in May found Chehalis employees are earning between $11.85 and $33.11 an hour, with about half making less than $17.50 hourly.
A “family-wage” job in Lewis County generally pays at least $17.50 to $20 an hour, according to Guenther.
Increasing pay for Bradken workers, he said, could help rebuild the area’s lagging economy.
“If you look at the middle class in Lewis County, it’s not maintaining its numbers,” Guenther said.
Lewis County’s average annual income remains at $34,980 while workers statewide are earning $51,964 a year, according 2012 data from the Employment Security Department.
“That’s poverty for crying out loud,” Guenther said. “We need this community to be at the state’s average wage.”
Guenther noted the county’s consistently high unemployment rate — 11. 4 percent in July versus the state’s 6.9 percent — and the increasing number of public school students on free and reduced lunch.
In Washington, 45.5 percent of students received free or reduced lunch in 2011-12, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In Centralia and Chehalis, those numbers increased to 66.7 and 50.5 percent, respectively.
“That tells you their parents are under the poverty level,” Guenther said. “That tells you the state of the economy in this county.”
Nationwide, the steady decline of organized labor since the 1970s and the erosion of collective bargaining has lead to lowered wages because workers no longer receive higher union wages and there is less pressure on nonunion employers to increase pay, according to a 2012 Economic Policy Institute report.
Expanding unionization, Guenther said, improves wages for all workers by creating a wage base employers must meet to remain competitive in the labor market.
As Bradken employees continue to push for a contract, Guenther said, organized labor stand behind them in their fight for fair and decent wages, which will benefit the entire community.
“We’re not in the business to break business. We’re in the business to have a fair shake for workers and for companies,” Guenther said. “Bradken is a guiding light for standing up.”
Amy Nile: (360) 807-8235