Ironworkers’ Loud Contract Campaign Gets the Goods
To make company negotiators feel their power, ironworkers in Augusta, Maine, got loud—hammering on beams in the plant and leaning on their car horns.
“Hammer time” was one of many pressure points they used to win a good contract in May. Another one: when the company dragged its feet in bargaining, workers just stopped putting in extra hours—and stopped going the extra mile when they were there.
Ironworkers Local 807 represents 85 shop fabricators at the facility, owned by the steel manufacturing company Cives. Their contract had been extended twice for short periods, but as the company continued its slow walk, the workers voted unanimously against extending it any further.
Cives, originally established to serve the needs of paper mills, now produces 20,000 tons a year of structural steel for high-rise buildings, airports, hospitals, universities, and pharmaceutical and nuclear power plants.
Thirty years ago, when Local 807 Chief Steward Tim Dunlap first started working there, it was a well-paid job compared to other entry-level blue collar jobs in central Maine. He earned almost double the minimum wage with full employer-sponsored health coverage. That’s not true now.
“This is a difficult job,” Dunlap said. “New workers start out working in the steel yard in the extremes of winter and summer. That alone needs proper compensation.”
Wages and core benefits were a key contract issue for all employees. Health insurance costs had escalated while benefit levels dropped; retirement benefits were insufficient.
The company has 1,400 employees and an annual revenue of $360 million. Only three of its seven locations are unionized; the other two are in Gouverneur, New York (Ironworkers Local 824), and Winchester, Virginia (Steelworkers). (These unions shared info during bargaining, and Local 824 even held a support demonstration that was attended by Gouverneur’s mayor.)
By placing its plants in rural areas with few other career opportunities for blue-collar workers, the company made it more difficult for unions to gain leverage. When contract expirations neared, it would move around work and schedules to make work sparse at the union shops.
“It’s a tough company. They’ve always been tough,” said Ironworkers General Organizer Tony Rosaci. “They would squeeze every dollar.”
However, by 2022, the situation had changed; Cives was having trouble recruiting and retaining workers. The Augusta unit typically employs 110 people, but 32 of them left last year.
The company started relying on extended overtime—which eventually wore out the workers it did have. Now workers were also frustrated at having no time with their families, on top of the soaring cost of living. And they knew a tight job market gave them leverage.
DON’T BITE THE HAND
Bargaining was contentious. Workers started refusing to work overtime, and they let their low morale affect productivity.
Cives responded by subcontracting work for its customers to other fabricators, though this cuts into its profits. So the Ironworkers New England District Council—which also represents field erectors—put the word out to steel erection companies that Cives wouldn’t be the one fabricating the steel for their projects.
This raised questions for customers about the quality of the steel and timeliness of deliveries. These problems can be expensive; mis-fabricated steel costs money to fix, and delays extend rental time for expensive equipment.
It was clear that the union’s tactic was making an impact when customers visited the Augusta shop to check on the progress of their materials. The first thing they saw were the signs in the windshields of workers’ vehicles in the parking lot: “Share the Wealth, Not the Crumbs!” and “Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds You!”
Managers began asking the workers to remove the placards. Instead they moved their vehicles to give customers a better view. “We were like, ‘Thanks for the heads-up!’” Dunlap said.
Ironworkers organizers also visited Cives’ non-union subcontractors that were accepting union work to signal that they were seeking to organize their workers.
Meanwhile, the workers on day and night shifts performed their musical talents in repeated “hammer time” serenades, which is when a multitude of workers simultaneously slam their hammers on beams, tables, and the columns which support the company’s second-floor office.
“The noise level was amazing, lasting quite a few minutes in every performance,” said Local 807 President, Jonas Ireland, who works in the shop. “You could literally feel the vibrations in the bargaining table.”
Every day that bargaining took place, workers would lean on their car horns when entering or leaving the parking lot, or even just while sitting in their cars at lunchtime.
When the company stopped paying bargaining committee members for lost time, Local 807 scheduled sessions after work hours: evenings and Sundays. The company’s chief negotiator wailed that he had to fly from Atlanta and then drive an hour and a half from the Portland airport for short sessions.
Although Local 807 was not affiliated with the Maine AFL-CIO at the time, the state federation helped build community support, bringing affiliates out to demonstrations where they waved flags, held signs, and hooted at the company and the supervisor (who reportedly resumed smoking after years of abstinence).
A demonstration before the bargaining session on April 16 drew 100 people from various unions. Company executives arrived hours early to avoid the crowd, but the crowd marched down a steep hill and took up positions opposite their office windows.
The company called the police, who ordered the crowd to move back a dozen feet—where they remained, chanting and shouting. And the workers were aggravated enough to turn out for another demonstration at the next bargaining session, April 27.
Workers also signed a huge poster demanding a good contract and presented it to the facility manager on the floor of the plant.
On May 1, the company sent a letter accusing the chief steward, Dunlap, who had also given a number of media interviews, of intimidating workers who wanted to work overtime. Cives threatened to fire Dunlap and bring a Labor Board charge against the union.
The union responded that the company was violating the protection of concerted activity by saying the steward couldn’t urge people not to work overtime. They also said the company was engaging in bad faith bargaining by threatening the committee and was retaliating against the steward for his participation in media interviews. The company never raised the matter again.
All the pressure resulted in a contract, ratified May 8, that includes:
- Average first-year wage increases of 6.5 percent
- A 25 percent increase in the company’s hourly contribution to the retirement plan; earlier participation in the pension plan and a reduced vesting period
- Employee contribution levels to the health plan frozen through 2024, with minimal increases in 2025 and 2026
- Adding one paid holiday (at employee choice)
- Safety equipment allowances increased.
- All work fabricated by members at the Augusta plant must have “FABRICATED BY IRONWORKERS LOCAL 807” on each bill of lading
Andy O’Brien is a writer and the communications director of the Maine AFL-CIO.