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French metalworkers support unionization vote at Vallourec Star

Published: Sun, January 19, 2014 @ 12:08 a.m.

By Burton Speakman



Since Vallourec took ownership of its facility in Youngstown, things have gotten worse for employees, according to Dave Lorenzi, a worker for Vallourec Star.

Lorenzi was one of the speakers Saturday at an event at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union of America in Girard about a mile from the Vallourec Star facilities. The plant produces steel pipe for the oil and gas industry.

Voting will take place Tuesday through Thursday at both the old and new mills at the Vallourec property to determine if workers will become part of the union.

One of the first things Vallourec did when it took over the plant was to freeze pensions for current employees and eliminate them for new employees, Lorenzi said. Employees also have had to pay higher insurance premiums and work in a two-tier pay system.

“I think the final straw was when they pulled the Sunday premium,” he said. “They told us Sunday was just another day.”

Workers previously had been paid time-and-a half for Sunday work, Lorenzi said.

Bill Allen has worked his current job for 18 years, including 11 for Vallourec.

The employees are looking to have more legal rights, he said.

“If you look at the employee handbook, there’s not much in it that benefits us,” Allen said.

If something happens at work, the employees represent themselves with as many as five managers in the room. It makes it difficult for the employee to protect his or her job, he said.

“The first thing in the handbook is you’re an at-will employee, which means you’re employed at their will,” Allen said.

Karen Hardin, a spokeswoman for the UE International said Vallourec has spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars trying to defeat the union, including hiring a company with hundreds of employees to help stop the union organizing effort.

The company also has mandated that employees come in before or stay after shifts to attend mandatory meetings that are against unionization, she said.

In addition, employees have been promised promotions or raises based on the union vote’s failing, Hardin said.

“These are the mind games that the company is playing,” she said.

Unionizing employees would not benefit the company or employees, said Judson Wallace, president of Vallourec Star, in a previous statement.

“While we support the rights of employees to choose whether they wish to organize a union, we do not believe this would add value, foster teamwork or add to the competitiveness of the company,” Wallace said.

“Vallourec Star employees enjoy competitive wage rates and positive working conditions, which they receive without a union,” he said.

Allen said he disagrees with Wallace’s statement and thinks the union would add value to the product.

“Unions are not inflexible,” Allen said.

The United States facilities are the only Vallourec facilities in the world that don’t have union representation, said Christian Pilichowski, board member for the Metalworkers Federation in France, which represents Vallourec workers in that country.

Pilichowski said his group came to the U.S. to show solidarity for the Vallourec workers in this country.

“We wanted to explain the benefits we have in France because of unionization,” he said.

This is the fourth time during Allen’s tenure that workers have voted about a union, he said.

“The last time [12 years ago], we failed by five votes,” Allen said.

The current workers have an issue with the two-tier pay system in which some workers get paid less despite doing the same work. For some workers, it might be five, 10 or 20 years before they reach the top pay scale.

The workers also are looking for a legal contract that provides them more rights, Lorenzi said.

The union decision is not the only news coming from the Vallourec Star facility.

Company officials are expected to decide in less than 90 days about an $81.5 million steel-pipe threading facility about a mile from the company’s $1.1 billion expansion mill.

The company wants to use the former Genmak Steel building and an additional 67,500 square feet nearby in the city’s Ohio Works Business Park for the VAM USA LLC threading plant.

If completed, the facility would employ 84 full-time workers by early next year.

City council approved a 10-year, 75-percent property-tax abatement for the proposed VAM project, and the city will receive $300,000 from the state for improvement work at the location, should the Vallourec subsidiary expand there.

Hardin said there is no reason the company would not move forward with an expansion.

The company made sure to talk about expansion just before the union vote, she said.

They want employees questioning whether the expansion will still happen if they vote for the union, Hardin said.

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