Sheet metal workers are locked-out in Detroit Lakes

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In yet another Minnesota workplace, an employer has chosen to lock-out union workers rather than negotiate a new contract.

Members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 who work at Snappy Air Distribution Products in Detroit Lakes voted Friday, March 8 by a margin of 77-16 to reject the company’s contract offer. They did not vote to strike.

When the workers reported to work Monday morning, March 11, however, they found they were locked-out from their jobs.

The 96 members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 at Snappy work to manufacture residential HVAC fittings and duct work.

“There are 70 people who have been there 25 years or more,” reported Jim Bowman, business manager of Local 10. “They’ve been loyal to the company all these years. It’s sad.”

Snappy was founded in Detroit Lakes in 1955, grew to include several manufacturing locations around the United States, and became the nation’s “leading manufacturer of pre-fabricated air distribution products,” according to the company’s website. In 1994, Snappy became Standex Air Distribution Products.

In February of 2012, Snappy was purchased by Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC, a New-York based private equity firm (www.blue-wolf.com).

“I’ve done a little internet research on the company,” said Local 10 business agent Ricky Englund. “They claim to work well with unions.”

Blue Wolf’s website highlights the firm’s professed “core values,” which state, in part: “We will… pay fair wages and benefits… and work with employees and labor unions as respected partners in our businesses.”

In addition, Blue Wolf’s website also boasts that the firm has joined the “Principles for Responsible Investment,” a United Nations sponsored initiative (www.unpri.org).

According to the Blue Wolf website, Blue Wolf partner Adam Blumenthal “is chairman of the investment committee of the UAW VEBA, a $55 billion fund that pays retiree health benefits for UAW employees of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.”

Despite all these nice-sounding credentials, Snappy’s first contract offer under Blue Wolf ownership was onerous.

“It was a pay freeze for three years for anybody who had been with the company more than 25 years,” Sheet Metal Local 10’s Bowman said, along with “an increase in health and welfare.”

The union’s bargaining committee included five Snappy employees — including one 40-year employee, Bowman said — plus three Local 10 representatives.

Blue Wolf representatives managed the negotiations on their own, Bowman said, with no outside attorney.

In-person negotiations took place February 20, 21 and 22 and continued March 6, 7, and 8. For the last two sessions however, Englund noted, Snappy’s onsite manager was not at the table with the Blue Wolf representatives. “I think the new ownership wanted to take total control of the conversation at the negotiating table,” he said.

When the company made its final offer, Bowman said, they threatened a lock-out — in writing -— stating that the workers would not be allowed to work past the expiration of the contract at 12 midnight on the evening of March 8.

“They were banking that the people would accept the offer,” Bowman said.

The union’s bargaining committee remained neutral in presenting the contract to members, Bowman said.

“How can I endorse a three-year wage freeze? I can’t — especially coming off a three-year freeze,” Bowman said.

Even with the stated threat of a lock-out, the workers voted 77-16 to reject the contract, Bowman reported. “Normally I don’t allow the vote to be told,” he added, but in this case the vote showed the workers’ solid rejection of the offer.

“The fear of frozen wages and escalating healthcare costs drove them in that direction,” Englund said.

With the lock-out, the company immediately cut-off the workers’ health insurance. “People in their 50s and 60s, that’s one of their main fears, going without health insurance,” Bowman noted. “It’s like Russian Roulette when you go without health insurance.”

He added, “with 96 people, I guarantee you something will happen. You’ve got 96 families. Tell me that nothing’s going to happen to 96 families in the next two to three weeks. The odds aren’t very good. I haven’t slept for a while.”

“We want these people back to work,” Bowman emphasized. “We’re trying to negotiate… We didn’t take a strike vote. We told people to go back to work Monday.”

“It’s just too bad companies have to treat employees who have been this loyal to them this way,” Bowman said.

“It’s scary for the common worker to hear about all these lock-outs. Hopefully it’s not a sign of things to come,” Bowman said, noting that Snappy workers were well-aware of the American Crystal Sugar lock-out of 1,300 BCTGM union members, now in its 19th month.

“Hopefully this thing gets resolved in the next week or so,” Bowman said.

Snappy workers in Detroit Lakes endured a 10-day lock-out three years ago under the previous owners, which also followed a union vote to reject the company’s contract offer, noted Englund, Local 10 business agent for the Snappy workers for the past 14 years.

Snappy workers locked-out this year are eligible for Minnesota unemployment benefits. “It’s sad the company has the ability to put the burden back on the state when they have labor strife,” Englund said.