As the strike of unionized Ingredion workers in Cedar Rapids continues well into its second month, company leaders publicized their side, frustrated workers promptly refuted it, and the Cedar Rapids City Council has opted to take a “work it out yourselves” approach.
Ingredion, a manufacturer of starches, sweeteners, and other food products, took out a full-page ad it said was an “open letter” in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Monday, Sept. 12, addressing the ongoing impasse. The letter is also available on Ingredion’s website.
“From the start, our goal has been to reach an agreement that provides very competitive wages, comprehensive benefits and improved working conditions,” the company wrote, adding it was “committed to reaching a fair agreement as soon as possible” and “stands ready” to continue talks.
The letter did not go over well with BCTGM Local 100-G union members, who have been on strike since Aug. 1 as they fight to keep their pay, benefits, and retirement intact, and in support of those who would lose their jobs.
Christopher Eby, an Ingredion worker, past president of the union and a member of its negotiating committee, posted his own open letter Wednesday to a private strike group on social media, a copy of which was shared with Starting Line. In Eby’s letter, he refuted several of Ingredion’s points and said the company’s offer was “not sincere.”
“There is no simpler reply to their advertisement but to use a quote popularized by Mark Twain: ‘There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics,'” Eby wrote.
To top it all off, the Cedar Rapids City Council wrote in a guest column in the Gazette Wednesday that they wanted both sides to “put aside your differences and negotiate professionally and ethically to do what is in the best interest of our community,” declining to outright support either the workers’ union or the company.
Local union president Mike Moore said the column was put out after he met with the mayor and city manager last month.
“I was hoping the city council would put more pressure on them to get back to the table, get qualified workers back in there,” Moore told Starting Line.
In its ad, the first time the company has so publicly and explicitly laid out its offer to workers (“We felt it was important to communicate to the Cedar Rapids community,” a company spokesperson told the Gazette), Ingredion said it was proposing the following:
- “Guaranteed annual increases” of between 3.5% and 7.4%, with “80% of employees” getting wage increases, and the remaining 20% “eligible for a lump sum amount of $2,200 or the ability to bid into a job” that does get the wage increase;
- “New positions that offer additional opportunities for advancement,” although those new positions were not specified;
- “Wellness incentives and improvements” the company says would provide $880-$1,480 of value, “significantly outweigh(ing) the slight premium increase” workers face in their health insurance premium hikes;
- Unspecified benefit improvements in “paid time off for vacation, bereavement leave (and) jury duty;”
- An “improvement in our safety equipment allowance”
The company noted this offer was made July 30, prior to the strike, seemingly indicating they haven’t made any compromises since.
“From the very start of these negotiations, Ingredion has been committed to reaching an agreement that provides very competitive wages, comprehensive benefits, and enhanced conditions for our people to ensure the successful operation of the Cedar Rapids facility, its continued vital role in the community, and its ongoing support of Iowa farmers,” the company said in the letter.
A company spokesperson indicated the company did not wish to add anything to its open letter.
Eby refuted the company’s claims point-by-point in his own letter this week. (Eby’s letter was authenticated by Moore: “Everything he said is totally accurate.”)
First: Eby said those wage increases came AFTER the company said they planned to lower workers’ hourly rates.
“What they failed to mention was their contract proposal immediately regresses many of our current job hourly rates up to $3 under what we make now,” Eby wrote. “At the end of a four-year contract, some jobs will still pay less than now.”
Wage dissatisfaction started when the company adopted a two-tiered wage system in 2015, differentiating between employees. Eby said the union tried to dissuade Ingredion from doing so at the time, anticipating the problems it would cause in future contracts and making it “difficult for the company to retain employees.”
“This is not about company generosity; it’s to fix a problem that unsurprisingly became a reality,” he said.
Eby said any potential gains in wages would immediately be offset by the hike in health insurance premiums and deductibles, which he said the company is not guaranteeing won’t change for the life of the contract.
“Did they mention that they can change their health plan at their whim?” he wrote. “Their misleading wage ‘increases’ would be devoured.”
He said the company wasn’t actually adding more time off, because it was removing “our current guaranteed days off” and providing fewer days of vacation. Family medical leave of absence would also be worsened, he said.
“Is that a caring company, to take from employees at the very moment families have a crisis?” he wrote.
And that improved safety equipment allowance, which Eby said would be put toward employees buying required safety shoes? Since July 30, he said company officials have tried to walk that back.
“I guess the company does put a cost on safety,” he wrote.
Though the strike has been ongoing since Aug. 1, the two sides haven’t negotiated in three weeks, said Moore. Since this week’s pressure campaigns, the two sides have agreed to return to the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.
From what he’s hearing from inside the plant, Moore worries a lot about Ingredion’s continued use of outside workers, who he says aren’t trained to work with the hazardous materials unionized members expertly and safely handle.
It’s an accident waiting to happen, he says, and potentially already affecting Cedar Rapids: Moore said he’s heard about sewer backups in the nearby Czech Village section of town since workers went on strike.
“We need to get back in there,” Moore said.
The Cedar Rapids City Council seemed to agree in their column this week.
“One paycheck missed is one paycheck too many,” the council wrote. “We believe in both parties and your ability to put an end to this strike that has already lasted too long. Our community and the City Council are counting on you.”
Workers hope that puts pressure on Ingredion officials.
“We want a contract that allows us to feed and shelter our families,” Eby wrote. “A contract that allows us to keep our promises to our kids to engage in an activity on our days off. A contract that allows us to engage and contribute to our community.”
Ingredion’s offer so far ain’t it, he said.
“I’ve worked at this plant for over 30 years. I was here for the 78-day strike in 2004. I have never seen a contract offer so bad that 100% of our members rejected it,” Eby wrote.
By Amie Rivers
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