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Mobtown Beat

Labor Deprivation

Machinists Strike over Health Benefits

Frank Klein
AROUND A BARREL, NOT OVER ONE: International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers members walk a picket line outside Kaydon Ring and Seal.

By Van Smith | Posted 1/5/2005

Between the three of them, David Lemon, Jerome Watkins, and Clauzell Ghee have earned 107 years’ worth of paychecks from Kaydon Ring and Seal, for building engine parts at the company’s sprawling Wicomico Street plant in Southwest Baltimore. Wages at Kaydon these days, they say, are anywhere between $15 and $22 an hour. But now they’re looking at collecting just $150 per week in strike funds from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) for putting in four-hour shifts manning the strike line at Kaydon’s various entrances.

“But you have to walk three weeks before you get anything,” explains a younger worker, Melvin Banner Jr., as he stokes a fire, fueled by pallets and wood scraps donated by other nearby businesses, in a 50-gallon drum.

“People come down, come through here, look at us like we’re homeless guys trying to keep warm,” Lemon chuckles. But the strikers’ sandwich-board signs, which read i.a.m. on strike, help clear up any confusion. “They called the fire department on us,” Lemon says, referring to the bosses at Kaydon.

But the fire fighters, Banner adds, “told us if we put a grate over the top, and kept some hot dogs laying around, we could act like we’re cooking. They don’t bother us anymore.”

“It’s not so much about the money,” Watkins declares, by way of explaining the workers’ choice to sit out in the cold over the holiday season—and likely much longer, depending on how currently nonexistent contract negotiations play out.

On Dec. 5, the IAMAW workers’ three-year contract with Kaydon expired, and Watkins says the company was “offering us 5 percent [raises] the first year, nothing the second year, and nothing third year. But that’s not the hang-up. The hang-up is the benefits. Our [health] insurance is going up 15 percent the first year. Then the following year, we would pay 20 percent of the premium—and who knows how much the premium’s going to be?”

The final insult, he says, was the halving of the company’s pension contribution.

Lemon has a theory about the company’s strategy on making the last-minute contract offer. “From the 23rd [of December] to the 2nd [of January], we’re out for the holidays anyway,” he says. “They know that during this time of the year nobody wants to go out [on strike]. And they figure that, well, throw them the peanuts, they’ll take it. We said no. I’ve been here 38 years and I refuse to go backwards.”

“And this is going backwards,” Banner interjects. But Banner has a slightly different take on the company’s course of action: “Ain’t nobody want to go out during Christmas, but the company forced us out because they knew they were going to save money. They knew we weren’t going to take that contract, and they knew that if they kicked us out, all that time, they ain’t going to pay anybody and it’s a slow time of year anyway for them.”

So far,replacement workers haven’t crossed the line. Kaydon “was talking about bringing some people in,” Lemon says. “But I don’t think they brought any. They don’t need them till they run out of their inventory,” which the workers say has been stockpiled in recent months.

“They stepped up production before this,” Banner says, “because they knew what part numbers they’re going to sell. They make the same part numbers over and over again-for the aircraft industry, the military, but [engine manufacturer] Pratt and Whitney is the main one.”

Kaydon officials could not be reached for comment on the strike, but as a publicly traded company, information about Kaydon’s financial performance is widely available. On Jan. 3, the company paid out a fourth-quarter $0.12 per share cash dividend to stockholders, the same amount as its third-quarter dividend. In late October, the company’s third-quarter net income came in at $9.5 million, or $0.34 per share for the nearly 28 million shares outstanding, up from $7.2 million for last year’s third quarter. And in September, Kaydon’s board voted for large increases in fees and retainers paid to its nonemployee directors. The company’s chief executive officer made nearly $1.1 million in 2003, plus another $85,250 in exercised stock options.

“The company has been making a profit, no question,” remarks John Jeffries, the IAMAW’s local president. “But each contract, they try to take away from the employees.”

“If this company was losing some money or something,” Watkins chimes in, his hands stuffed in his coat pockets as he stands next to a barrel fire, “then I could understand making some concessions. But why should we have to make concessions when they’re making money hand over fist?”

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