Outside the front entrance of the Moncure Plywood plant, Lewis Cameron, who has worked here 35 years, joins his co-workers on the picket line. It is the day before Thanksgiving, and as Cameron, the increasingly frustrated president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 369, begins his six-hour shift on the picket line, a group of union supporters distributes coffee and snacks.
Down the road from the Chatham County plant, other workers huddle around a wood-burning stove as flatbed trucks carrying stacks of uncut timber line up to enter the gates. Like Cameron, many have worked at the plant for most of their professional lives. And like him, each has left a job that paid an average of $14.50 an hour to subsist on a $150 a week stipend from the union plus whatever donations arrive from local charities.
Six months after electing to go on strike over the number of hours they would be required to work, the unionized employees of Moncure Plywood are no closer to returning to their jobs. In fact, they can't come back. In response to the strike, the company has hired replacements—with the state unemployment rate at 7 percent, there is no shortage of takers—whom it considers permanent employees, leaving those who walked out in the literal and figurative cold.
Nearly 2 million people nationwide have lost their jobs in the last year and thousands more are underemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, underscoring the seriousness—or as critics may say, folly—of the striking workers.
"The outlook is, in a word, grim," Cameron says. "There are a lot of people out here on this line who need this job, but we won't go back to be treated like slaves."
Tensions began after the union's last three-year contract expired April 30, says Melvin Montford, the Local's business adviser. The main issue, he says, is the company's proposal to require employees to work 60 hours a week, up from 50, forcing some people to work six, even seven days in a row. The changes are allowable under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which does not limit the amount of time an employer can require its employees to work as long as they are paid time and a half after logging 40 hours. (The company also proposed to strip the union of its ability to use seniority in considering which workers fill new job openings.)
The employment downturn also has given plant management leverage over the predominantly black and Latino workforce, while setting a precedent for other companies.
"They see folks trying to get some control over their livelihoods and they want to take it away," Cameron says.
"If we allow Moncure to increase the number of hours, then what you're going to see is others follow suit," adds MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. "So what the Moncure workers are doing is standing up for workers across the state."
Although company representatives began negotiating with union leadership over the new contract, the two parties couldn't hammer out an agreement. In July, half of the plant's 210 employees decided to strike.
In four decades, relations between plant management and the predominantly minority workforce have been mostly congenial, Cameron says.
Moncure Plywood set up shop in this small town 12 miles southeast of Pittsboro in June 1967, churning out top-grade plywood for high-end furniture. In 2005, the company was purchased by the Connecticut-based Atlas Holdings. The subsequent contract negotiation went fairly smoothly, workers say. Asked why this current round has been so contentious, Cameron charges that the current members of the plant administration, including the plant manager, are "hell bent" on decertifying the union.
Montford, the union's business adviser, doesn't go that far, saying that while Atlas Holdings doesn't have a record of union-busting, "they certainly have some people in some decision-making areas that have a history of busting unions."
Jeff Matuszak, the plant's sales and marketing manager, says that assertion is false.
"We remain committed to reaching an agreement with the union based on our final offer," he says.
Matuszak declined to offer any details about the content of the discussions but says that talks between the two sides are ongoing.
The company's refusal to allow the striking workers to return to their jobs remains a sticking point. With the plant running at near capacity, workers like Angie LAST NAME?, a shy, middle-aged woman who has worked at the plant since she was 18, hope that if they can't get their jobs back, they will at least receive a severance package.
"I love the work," she says. "But I won't go back under the management we got now. Just give me my severance and let me go on."
Montford told a supporter the union could go so far as to organize a strike at another plant owned by Atlas Holdings, in Olympia, Wash.
"This is the war phase," he told the supporter. "We've had this issue at other plants, and after both sides walked away from the table with an agreement, the workers were allowed back. What they're doing is trying to take advantage of a bad situation here with the economy. I don't understand their refusal to allow that to happen in this case, but we're going to do what we need to protect our members."
Most of the workers on the line seem to take some comfort in that; Cameron does not. "If I sound bitter, it's because I am," he says. "We're out here at the mercy of the world, and I can't say when it's going to end."
The Faith, Labor, Community Moncure Workers' Solidarity Committee is planning a Christmas Rally to bring holiday food, toys and financial support to the strikers Dec. 20 at noon. For more information, contact Lori Hoyt at 968-1888 or Miriam Thompson at 370-4114.