Amidst the turmoil, uncertainty and unprecedented events of the past several months, tens of thousands of Machinists Union members, designated as essential workers, have quietly risen to the call across North America, and remain on the job. District and local representatives find themselves fighting to ensure their members’ health, safety and just compensation in an entirely new negotiating environment.

“It’s tough for us not to be able to have that face-to-face contact with our membership, stewards and local officers,” said District W24 Directing Business Representative Noel Willet. “You can’t come together and shake each other’s hands, pat each other on the back, just to have that feeling of family and helping each other.”

Prior to COVID-19, representatives from District W24 in the Northwest, along with those from Local 519 in Arizona and Nevada and from District 947 in Southern California, spent most of their time in the field interacting directly with membership.

“I usually put around 7,000 miles a month on the vehicle to visit members and negotiate contracts on their behalf,” said Local 519 Directing Business Representative Paul Shepherd. “Not being able to do that face to face has been extremely difficult.”

Adding to the challenge–many members they represent now work long hours in situations that could threaten their lives if they don’t have the proper protective equipment (PPE).
“I think everyone has been using the argument that this thing is hard to stop. But right now, folks out there dealing with the public or with other operators need more time to wash up, and more frequently,” said IAM District 947 Directing Business Representative Sal Vasquez. “So, we’ve been pushing on that. Now we’re getting more into the health and safety part of it.”

Vasquez and District 947 staff represent workers at employers from San Diego all the way up to San Luis Obispo. Among the many industries considered essential, IAM members work in shipbuilding, turbine manufacturing and as automotive and diesel mechanics. Machinists also maintain equipment and fleet vehicles for food and beverage producers and distributors, bakeries and grocery distribution centers.

“Our members put themselves at risk every day to make sure the supply chain functions smoothly during this crisis,” said IAM Western Territory General Vice President Gary R. Allen. “It is no surprise to me that these dedicated Fighting Machinists have stepped up to the challenge, and we will continue our fight until they are all protected and recognized for their sacrifices.”

With passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), and more federal assistance anticipated, employers have been open to negotiate with the IAM and other unions across the country. Machinists have obtained hourly hazard pay, sometimes called ‘appreciation pay’ by employers, ranging from $2 to $5 per hour, or weekly bonuses for members reporting to work.

“It seems like employers thought the money part was enough,” said Vasquez. “We’ve had phone conversations with our attorneys about what demands we can make on the employers, and what we can bargain for over COVID-19, especially for those who are front line—face masks, distancing, hand sanitizer and the other stuff in the CDC rules.”

Some operations have as many as 300 or more workers, which present challenges for the health and safety of employees operating equipment requiring two or more people. Working in close quarters demands extra steps to prevent possible contamination, and strong trust in fellow workers to keep each other safe.

In Oregon and Washington, wood products, aerospace, public service and truck manufacturing are but a few of the industries in which District W24 represents IAM members.

“District W24 is fortunate in a way, because a large share of our members are essential,” said Willet. “At one point, we had 800 people laid off. We just got Daimler back to work a couple of days ago, and that brought back 400 members.”

Members at Daimler Trucks in Portland, OR build the trucks that haul food and other needed cargo across North America. As a new part of the plant’s PPE, plexiglass barriers have been put in place where workers must be in proximity.

Some IAM service contract members on military bases in Arizona and southern Nevada were first encouraged to bring or make their own masks to use on the job. But with increasing CDC rules, the union has made sure companies now comply.

“We wanted our members to be able to wear PPE at their option, especially initially, but once it becomes a requirement, the employer must provide it,” said Shepherd. “Most companies have been trying to do the right thing. Even in places where we have had strained relationships in the past, right now people have been trying to come together and do the right thing.”

With the adoption of severe travel restrictions across North America, cliché phrases like “sheltering in place” and “social distancing” have become the new norm. As a result, it is harder for local and district officers to meet with members or employers. Face-to-face talks have given way to phone and conference calls.

“We are doing everything we can to keep everybody employed, and those who are employed safe,” said Shepherd. “We have been able to make sure even where some of these companies have done some essential support or extra pay, that it is in addition to everything they already get in their collective bargaining agreement, not instead of.”

Portland, OR Mondelez-Nabisco Machinists, and members employed by the company in Chicago and Atlanta, were all able to negotiate $2 per hour hazard pay and an additional two weeks of sick pay.

“We did press for having temperature monitoring as our members entered the facilities,” said Willet. “And if they had COVID-like symptoms or fever, they’re allowing a 14-day quarantine period with pay. We don’t want our members to be running fevers and possibly be exposing others on the shop floor.”

The union presses companies for weekly or twice-weekly conference calls to be brought up to date on what they are doing to ensure the safety of IAM members and all employees. District representatives are in contact with other districts to share what’s working; some employers have instigated measures after just one phone call.

Hazard pay increases were adopted at five IAM-represented Bimbo Bakeries locations in California and Arizona, and Franz Bakeries in Los Angeles and Portland.

“Our folks are essential to keep the conveyors and ovens working,” said Vasquez. “We were able to get $2 more per hour as well for our mechanics who take care of the fleet.”

Ensuring grocery store shelves remain stocked with everyday necessities is key to keeping the supply chain functioning. IAM industrial and heavy-duty mechanics maintain the fleet of forklifts, tractors and trailers at all five Ralphs supermarket distribution centers in Southern California.

IAM workers employed at Miller Coors, Anheuser-Busch and Reyes Coca Cola all received substantial increases, bonuses for continuing to work, or guaranteed pay if they are sent home due to a quarantine or stay-at-home order. Beer and soft drink production lines and distribution can rapidly be converted to water, should its supply become an issue.

“As a matter of fact, tomorrow we’re going to have a follow-up negotiation with all the crafts and all the unions involved to talk to Miller Coors about the next stages of implementation with this stay-at-home order and how it impacts the workforce,” said Vasquez.

Union representatives are also requesting that companies facing diminished production participate in state workshare programs. By doing so, they reduce hours of work but maintain their healthcare and pension benefits, instead of reducing staff.

“We continue to try to push this program, which benefits employers, to retain their skilled people with reduced hours,” said Willet. “But then it gives workers the added $600 per week unemployment benefit under the CARES Act.”

Whether or not the current situation continues and becomes the “new normal,” protecting IAM members’ compensation, safety and health are paramount.

“We’ll do whatever to make sure our folks are protected,” said Vasquez.