A U.S. labor union whose members have been locked out at Continental Carbon Co.'s Ponca City, Okla., carbon black plant for more than three years again has taken its campaign against the company to its parent firms in Taiwan.
This time, five members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union went on a seven-day hunger strike to add to their protest in the ongoing dispute.
The PACE representatives started their hunger strike June 11 outside the Taipei headquarters of Continental Carbon's parent companies, China Synthetic Rubber Co. and Taiwan Cement Corp.-subsidiaries of Taiwan's Koos Group. They ended the protest-during which they ate no food and drank only water-on June 17. No one was arrested.
"This hunger strike is a symbol of our suffering and dedication," said Ralph Mangrum, a member of PACE Local 5-857, whose production worker members were locked out at Continental Carbon's Ponca City plant back on May 8, 2001. "We did it for all the 86 families who endured three years of hardship and suffering."
The union claims the protestors were forced by authorities to remove any signs from their original demonstration spot, handbill passersby or call any attention to their hunger strike, on threat of arrest or deportation. The Taiwan visit was timed to coincide with the June 11 and June 15 shareholder meetings of the Taiwanese companies, but the union members weren't allowed to speak at the June 15 CSRC meeting despite having proxies, a PACE spokeswoman said.
The PACE delegation was granted an audience with some Koos Group officials June 10, but had no further contact with senior officials of the corporation to help end the dispute, she said.
"There is obviously a problem with free speech in Taiwan," said Joseph Drexler, one of the five hunger strikers and PACE director of special projects. Drexler's striking colleagues included Mangrum; PACE Consultant Rick Abraham; Todd Carlson, chairman of PACE Local 5-857 in Ponca City; and Local 5-857 member Dave Westerman.
PACE previously sent representatives to Taiwan during this labor dispute; in June 2002, a PACE-led protest at the CSRC shareholders meeting resulted in scuffles with security guards.
Continental Carbon called the attempts to disrupt meetings and the hunger strike "another chapter in the union's book of corporate campaign activities. Clearly, PACE does not want to address the real issue, which is resolving a more-than three-year old labor disagreement in a mutually acceptable manner."
Economic issues kindled the dispute between Continental Carbon and PACE before the expiration of their three-year contract in May 2001. But since then, the corporate campaign has spread to include:
* environmental lawsuits emanating from its carbon black operations;
* the questioning of carbon black quality due to alleged high turnover and unskilled workers;
* communications with the company's tire maker customers; and
* the demonstrations in Taiwan.
Continental Carbon has called the union's allegations and actions reckless and unrelated to the Ponca City situation. The two sides also have had little contact at the bargaining table; the last set of meetings was in April, and the prior bargaining sessions occurred a year before that.
"We don't agree with much of what they're saying right now," a Continental Carbon spokesman said of the PACE officials. "Right now they're riding the waves of attention. It's just a distraction from the real task at hand."
The company is trying to deal responsibly with the difficult economic issues facing the tire and rubber industry on a global scale and, unlike some companies, attempting to provide opportunities in the U.S. for American workers, the spokesman said. But the firm needs to have the financial numbers that allow it to continue doing that, he said.
"What continues to amaze us is we've negotiated collective bargaining agreements with all other groups, including several with the PACE organization, but not the one in Ponca City," he said. Continental Carbon has contracts with PACE-represented production and laboratory units in Sunray, Texas, and laboratory workers in Ponca City.
The Ponca City plant continues to operate with replacement workers and salaried employees handling production, the company spokesman said.
PACE officials, however, have argued that the proposals to production workers in Ponca City haven't equaled those offered in Sunray. The company wants wage and benefit cuts costing each worker between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, the union claims.
Locked-out workers will return to Taiwan if the labor dispute does not end, Carlson said. He and the other protestors in Taiwan originally planned to be in the country until June 21, the PACE spokeswoman said.