High stakes at Davis Wire

July 17, 2012

Workers at Davis Wire have suffered horrible injuries, but the company's billionaire owner wants to double their health-care premiums, reports Darrin Hoop.

IMAGINE 12-hour workdays spent twisting and lifting 100 pounds of steel wire. Then consider: no paid breaks, paid lunch or overtime pay, and working weeks without a day off. Picture severed fingers, injured feet and legs, and even dying on the job while being charged over $200 a month for health care premiums. All this for starting pay of $10 an hour, barely above minimum wage.

And to top it off, your billionaire, out-of-state owner purchased a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, promised to never move it, then a year later did exactly that.

For the last two months, 85 members of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117 have faced this reality in their strike against Davis Wire in Kent, Wash., near Seattle.

The Teamsters contract expired on December 1, 2011. After months of negotiations stalled, workers voted overwhelmingly to strike on May 12. Three days later, management retaliated by laying off 27 workers, breaking seniority in the process. On May 21, the union struck Davis Wire.

Striking workers picket outside Davis Wire
Striking workers picket outside Davis Wire

This year marks the 126th anniversary of the mass strikes for the eight-hour day in the U.S. back in 1886. Unfortunately for Davis Wire workers, the struggle for an eight-hour shift with proper 15-minute breaks and a lunch break continues more than a century later.

Gary Coffey, a shop steward and a 22-year employee at Davis Wire, is one of the workers laid off for voting to strike. He explained the crucial importance of this issue in the strike:

In the years that I've worked here, we've never had any designated breaks. If we have an eight-hour shift, we have no coffee break, no lunch break. If you work 12 hours, you are expected to work for 12 hours without any breaks. It's just work, work, work. All they want is tonnage out. It gets kind of hard. All of it they say is about customer demand. You sometimes work 21 or 28 days straight without having a day off. In one instance, we had a forklift driver who worked 79 straight days without a day off.

This results in an environment where management sacrifices safety on the altar of profit. According to Coffey, who sits on the union safety committee, eight or nine workers suffered injuries this year that led to time-loss. As he said:

What you can do

Come to the July 17 solidarity rally at 3 p.m. at the Davis Wire picket line, at S. 194th and 80th Ave. S., in Kent, Wash.

Donate to the Davis Wire One More Day Fund. For more information on the struggle, visit the Teamsters Local 117 website or call 206-441-4860.

Join the strikers on the picket line at S. 194th and 80th Ave. S. in Kent. Workers are picketing 24/7, and help is especially needed in the evenings.

Help publicize the plight of Davis Wire workers by sharing the video "Missing Fingers at Davis Wire."

Safety around the mill is horrendous. I can probably show you about 25 to 30 people who have lost fingers. Some people have lost their feet. We had one guy who lost part of his leg because he got hit by a forklift. The safety deal is that if you have any problem with any of the machines, they want you to run it until somebody actually gets hurt, and then they'll fix it or put a band-aid on it. They have a safety program, but it's really bad because they can write you up, and you can even get fired because of it.

THE PROBLEMS at Davis Wire exist at other facilities owned by the Heico Wire Group around the country. According to the union's website, four workers have been killed in industrial accidence over the last few years.

And that's not to mention the managerial negligence that has led to dozens of severed limbs, according to the Teamsters. Yet injured workers--those who haven't been killed outright, anyway--face the threat of termination. And now, injured employees will face doubled health care premiums--from $106 to $212 a month--if the company gets its way.

Factor in an insulting offer on wages--raises of 0 percent, 0 percent, 1.5 percent and 2 percent over the life of the four-year contract--and the result is a wage cut overall with the additional health care costs.

"We figure just to keep up with regular inflation, we'd be looking at about 3 percent a year," said Coffey. "It's not even close. The way we're going, we're going to be working for minimum wage before long."

If a worker survives until retirement, management's offer adds not a single penny to the current pension plan. While the mainstream media often laments the "Cadillac" pensions of union workers, Coffey says the pensions at Davis Wire is strictly Chevy level. "I believe if you work 35 or almost 40 years, you might end up with almost $1,300 a month," Coffey says--which adds up to about $15,600 a year.

"We need an increase in pensions as I'm 61 years old right now," continued Coffey. "But I'm thinking of the people behind me because they're the ones who are going to appreciate it more than I am."

Since the layoffs, Local 117 filed at least 26 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. According to the union's website, the charges include "layoffs [that] violate federal law, bad-faith bargaining, worker surveillance, worker intimidation and illegal threats to shut down the facility in Kent if the union doesn't agree to management's demands."

Davis Wire claims it needs concessions from workers because of financial troubles.

Don't believe them. The Heico Wire Group owns Davis Wire along with three other wire manufacturers with eight plants in the U.S. and Canada. Each year, workers at Heico process more than 300,000 tons of steel rod into various products: nails, barbed wire, fencing, garage door springs, telephone wires and a multitude of other types of industrial wire.

However, these companies represent less than 25 percent of Heico's holdings. In addition to wire manufacturers, Heico's portfolio includes "more than 35 companies with aggregate sales of more than $2 billion...within a diverse set of industries, including telecommunications, aerospace, construction, food production and material handling equipment."

Michael Heisley--the $1.9 billion man--owns Heico. Forbes.com ranks him as the 293rd richest American and the 683rd richest person in the world. Wikipedia lists his "source of wealth" as "manufacturing, self-made." But it should be obvious that he personally manufactures nothing--and he "made" himself by specializing in "turning companies around."

According to one industry website, Heico:

acquires smaller companies that are often either distressed or in bankruptcy. He then makes them profitable by selling off the underperforming parts, eliminating waste or creating a new management team.

"People always say to me, 'How do you find out what to do?'" Heisley says. "I just ask the people in the company, they know. It isn't a secret. It's just that nobody has the will to do it...Most of everything we've touched has turned out to be successful. I don't mean to be arrogant about that, but most of them at one point have been very successful."

Apparently this "success" includes his decision to buy the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000. After promising to keep the team there, one year later, Heisley decided to move the team to Memphis. Now claiming his old age necessitated it, he sold the team for a reported $370-$380 million in a deal that could be completed by the end of the month. Heisley's betrayal was mimicked by Clay Bennett, the owner of the Seattle Supersonics, who relocated the team to Oklahoma City, a decision that's still an open wound for many Seattleites.

Heisley's payout from his sale of the Grizzlies could provide a nice $4.3 million check for each of the 85 striking Teamsters at Davis Wire--and Heisley would still be a multibillionaire.

UNFORTUNATELY, THERE won't be millions of dollars in public subsidies--which always seem to be offered to the owners of sports team, when they threaten to move cities--to help Gary Coffey and his coworkers. With management stalling in negotiations, solidarity and the class struggle will be their keys to winning.

In what Coffey called "a one-day show of force" early in the strike, workers set up a picket line outside the Davis Wire plant in Irwindale, Calif., shutting it down for one day. Spreading the strike permanently to these other plants could be crucial to break the isolation that Kent workers currently face.

Many different unions, along with Occupy Seattle, the Seattle Solidarity Network and other groups, have walked the picket lines as well as donated food and money to the strike.

On July 17, Teamsters Local 117 is sponsoring two different rallies to build support for the Davis Wire strikers. At 11 a.m. outside King County Superior Court, workers will rally as they officially join a class-action lawsuit against management for denying them rest and meal breaks and working them without pay over a three-year period.

At 3 p.m., there will be a community rally on the picket line. Speakers will include Davis Wire strikers like Larry Dunson, a 28-year production worker who lost his fingertip in an industrial accident at the facility; family members of strikers; Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Local 117; Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council; and Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council.

A large turnout at both rallies will both boost the morale of the strikers and help send a message to Davis Wire and its billionaire owner that the entire Seattle labor movement stands behind these workers.

Gary Coffey summed up exactly what's at stake:

I'm really concerned about the people behind me. I figure right now we are putting a line across. We are standing up for our rights. We are going to fight. This is a fight that we got to win. We can't lose it. We are going to win.

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