Striking Ingredion workers in Cedar Rapids say it’s more than their livelihoods at stake if the company refuses to negotiate with them: Hazardous and potentially explosive chemicals and starches used to make Ingredion products are now being manufactured by replacement workers with unknown training.
It’s especially dire because Ingredion is located not in an out-of-the-way industrial park, but in the heart of Cedar Rapids, with dozens of homes nearby and downtown within walking distance.
In 1919, an explosion at that very plant—then the Douglas Starch Works—killed 43 workers and injured another 30. A child living nearby also died from the explosion.
The world is a lot different more than 100 years later, including the chemicals used and safety procedures in place at Ingredion. But union workers fear under-trained workers introduce uncertainty.
“We have an irresponsible employer … and they need community oversight, so we know how they’re handling these explosive chemicals and material that could blow up this neighborhood,” said Jesse Case, secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 238.
Chemicals at Ingredion can (and do) cause explosions
Ingredion is a manufacturer of various ingredients used in food and beverage products as well as paper products, including starches, sweeteners and emulsifiers.
Workers say starch production in Cedar Rapids uses large quantities of chemicals like ethylene oxide, which the Environmental Protection Agency says can cause long-term health effects if released.
The Cedar Rapids plant reported ethylene oxide releases in 2020 of nearly 2,000 pounds, according to a letter passed out at Thursday’s mass picket from Peter Orris, a physician at the University of Illinois Hospital.
“Increases in this amount, seemingly inevitable when experienced trained workers are replaced by temporary replacement employees in the midst of a labor dispute, will lead to increasing the risk of cancer and other health impacts,” Orris wrote.
More immediately concerning is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical is highly flammable. Indeed, combustible materials at the plant have led to explosions there in the past, most recently a “moderate” explosion (causing no injury) in May of 1994.
Union officials said, these days, chemical handling jobs require as much as a year to be fully trained on safe handling, with yearly recertifications. An Ingredion spokesperson said all employees were “trained on our safety protocols and procedures.”
Update on negotiations
After last week’s negotiations were postponed over a dispute about Ingredion executives bringing armed guards to talks, negotiations are slated to resume next Tuesday.
Just heard from #BCTGM Cedar Rapids president Mike Moore that talks between the union and Ingredion didn't happen as planned Friday.
The next negotiation is set for Oct. 4. #ingredionstrike will go on for another week (at least).
— Amie Rivers (@amierrivers) September 27, 2022
Additionally, some striking members will caravan to Ingredion’s corporate headquarters in Westchester, Illinois, on Thursday, Oct. 6.
“Since they obviously aren’t listening and are actively escalating the situation with their bargaining tactics in Iowa, we’re taking our demands straight to the company’s front door in suburban Chicago,” said local union president Mike Moore.
By Amie Rivers
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