MUSCATINE, Iowa - Nearly one year and counting. And for employees at the GPC plant in Muscatine, there is dim hope for an immediate end to a lockout that began Aug. 22, 2008.
Company spokeswoman Janet Sichterman said 360 people were locked out, with 300 of them being members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 86D. They have been locked out since their five-year contract with Grain Processing Corp., or GPC, expired a year ago.
GPC is a global manufacturer and marketer of corn-based products including maltodextrins, corn syrup solids, and starches for the food.
Company and union representative have not been at the negotiating table since early June and GPC continues to use an alternative work force of contract employees, Sichterman said.
Gloria Lewis of Muscatine is one of those who is out of work. She said she never dreamed that a year later, the lockout would be continuing. "I still can't believe it even happened in the first place," she said. "I thought it would have been over in the first month."
Lewis began her career at GPC at age 18. The former research lab technician wanted to work another five years before retiring. But the lockout changed her mind. On July 1, at age 55, she retired after 37 years at the plant.
"One reason I retired was my unemployment ran out, and I was paying for my COBRA insurance, $350 a month. (With retirement) I got my pension and my insurance paid," she said. "I just ran out of money. I still wanted to work. I still want to go back to work. But it looks like they don't want us to come back to work."
Sichterman said the company just wants a good contract for everyone.
"From the start of negotiations, the company goal has remained the same - defining a contract that is fair for customers, the company and employees," she said. "GPC has and will continue to operate the Muscatine plant and provide uninterrupted products and service to customers with the current work force until the lockout ends."
Another union member without a job is Greg Monroe, 53, of Muscatine, who has worked more than 14 years at GPC as a senior store keeper. He also is fifth vice president of the union. He is single and the parent of two, ages 14 and 20, who both live at home.
His unemployment recently ended. "But it wasn't half of my wage," he said. "You try to survive as best as you can. But it is nothing to live on."
Occasionally, Monroe does odd jobs for extra cash. But he also has spent a lot of time volunteering for various community projects since the lockout began.
Actually, Monroe has maintained a positive attitude. And, he has gotten to know his fellow workers much better.
"We have formed a good solidarity. I have made a lot of friends," he said. "Normally, you would not see many of them at the plant. I also got closer to my kids and have gotten to do more family functions with my kids."
Tony Newton, of West Liberty, Iowa, a union steward, said there are several sticking points in the contract negotiations. Among them are the issues of seniority and an outsourcing clause. He said the company wants to go strictly by qualifications, rather than seniority, when considering someone for a job change within or outside the plant.
But Newton said GPC wants to define what those qualifications are. Regarding outsourcing, he said if GPC decided to eliminate a department, it could lay off those long-time employees and bring in a whole new group at a lower pay scale.
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Sichterman said GPC management has declined to comment on specifics of the contract talks.
However, she released a statement: "Negotiation meetings were held in late February, mid-March, late April, late May, and early June. During these meetings, several language changes were resolved, but many outstanding issues remain with no resolution."
Keith Stineman, 49, of New Boston, Ill., is a 22-year veteran of GPC. He works as a crew leader and serves as fourth vice president of the union. His wife also is out of work because she is caring for her sick mother.
"I am trying to survive on unemployment," he said, although that ran out recently. "I am probably going to have to go out and find a part-time job."
Stineman said he believes the makeup and philosophy of the company have changed. Still, he said the locked-out workers want to return to their jobs.
"It used to be a family-oriented company, but it has gone away from that. You are pretty much a number. Most people want to go back to work. They are hanging in there. Most people like their jobs."
"We are willing to come back to work," Monroe said. "We are willing to work under the old contract until this is worked out."
Meanwhile, Newton said some of the locked-out workers have found other employment and a few have indicated that they will not go back to work at the plant.
"We have had people make those comments to us," he said. "It is easy to say you are not going to go back until you get the call to come back to work. Then, they will make the decision."