"Green" Lighting Manufacturer Leaves Ohio IBEW Members in Cold
by The Electrical Worker, Wed Mar 04, 2009 at 10:50:08 AM EST
When Acuity Brands, one of the world's largest and most profitable lighting manufacturers, announced the shutdown of an Ohio manufacturing plant and the relocation of some assembly lines to Mexico, the firm said they were "reducing their footprint in the U.S."
The language of the corporate suite doesn't sit well with members and leaders of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1853, located in Newark, Ohio, who have produced well-respected brand Holophane lighting for generations. "Walked on and betrayed" would better describe the predicament faced by 102 members who will lose their jobs in the already hard-hit industrial city located 25 miles from Columbus. While some of their work will be relocated to an IBEW-organized plant in Crawfordsville, Ind., Newark members will be out looking for work in a region where jobs are drying up by the hour.
Labeling itself as a "green manufacturer" by producing energy-efficient lighting, Acuity Brands is a signatory of former President Bill Clinton's Climate Initiative. Acuity Brands signed on the Clinton Initiative only seven months after its subsidiary, Acuity Specialty Products Group, pleaded guilty to a felony count of knowingly violating the Clean Water Act, accepting a $3.8 million fine at a facility in Atlanta that produces detergent products. Acuity admitted to conspiracy to violate federal law by misleading Atlanta water inspectors about the wastewater flow from the plant over a five year period, and failing to report major spills of phosphorus and acid into the public water supply.
Acuity Brands manufactures fixtures under dozens of names, including American Electric Lighting, Peerless and Mark, which are marketed wholesale and line the shelves of major retailers. In a press release, Acuity promotes its "ongoing drive toward sustainability in our manufacturing, design, and transportation practices."
The sustainability of its dedicated workforce doesn't seem to be a high priority for the firm which declared fourth quarter 2008 operating profits of $73.7 million, up six percent from 2007, despite a souring national economy. The fourth quarter report predicts that "acceleration of our streamlining actions will ... be a winning formula for us."
"We're concerned about what may happen to our jobs in the future," says United Steelworkers Sub-District 1 Director Billy Boyce. USW represents more than 100 members of three locals, who will continue working at Acuity making glass after the assembly lines shut down. Glass making is more complex and expensive to move out of the country. But rumors are that the glass-making formula has already been sent across the border. "We just elected a new U.S. president who understands our problems. We need to shut down the loopholes in our trade laws," says Boyce.
Sandy Sforza, a 16-year assembly line worker and Local 1853 executive board member doesn't have time to stay angry about losing her job. At 46, she needs to prepare for the rest of her life. That's why she accepted an offer of $8 an hour above her regular wage rate to travel to Mezquital, Mexico to help set up Acuity's new assembly line.
"I don't blame the Mexican workers for what is happening," says Sforza. In fact, she says, "it's a shame that they will only make about $2 an hour for jobs that pay between $11 and $15 an hour here." That's not big money, she says. But the profits still weren't enough. "It's [Acuity's] greed that is shutting down the plant.
"I feel like I let everyone down," says Tamera Mason, a 32-year member who served as president of Local 1853 before she took a severance package negotiated in December after her pleas to sit down with management and look at alternatives to a shutdown were rejected. "I couldn't handle training Mexican workers to do my job," she says.
Mason's husband, John, a 35-year member, also took severance. Most of their co-workers are in their late 40's and 50's. Since Acuity, which employs over 6,000 workers worldwide, had no defined benefit pension plan covering workers in Newark, the plant's workers are forced to seek other jobs until they are eligible for Social Security. The few jobs left don't pay much. "Even working security on a Brink's truck only pays $8 an hour," says Mason.
"Employers say they won't discriminate by age, but how does a former assembly line worker in his late 50's compete for a job with a 19 year-old?" asks Sforza.
When Mason and her husband began work at Holophane, the plant, owned by Johns Manville, had a lucrative incentive plan, negotiated with Local 1853, and an open a relationship with the union. But Johns Manville, a maker of industrial insulation declared bankruptcy as a result of asbestos litigation. The plant was purchased by a group of businessmen who forced the local union out on strike in 1989. Benefits were cut, jobs were eliminated and the incentive plan was progressively terminated over the next few years.
In 1999, plants producing parts and fixtures for Holophane in Pataskala, Springfield and Utica, Ohio; Austin, Texas, and Crawfordsville, Ind. were purchased by NCI, which later spun them off to Acuity Brands.
Soon after Acuity's takeover, Tamera Mason and a group of Local 1853 leaders negotiated an enabling clause permitting midterm contract negotiations on crew sizes and other contractual provisions to increase the plant's productivity. The Vanguard Agreement, as it was called, made the plant more competitive, says Mason, but it was later shelved after she left union office.
Last June, Acuity notified the local that only two of the plant's 15 assembly lines would be relocated to Mexico. The notice didn't leave any room for comfort for Mason, who had recently been re-elected president, or Jeff Dondrea, the local's vice president and current acting president. The grass around the plant was going uncut, broken windows weren't being repaired--the signs of a shutdown were everywhere.
In a move to secure jobs and avert a shutdown, Mason requested that the Vanguard Agreement be revived, but the company wasn't interested.
In October, the union was notified that the entire assembly department in Newark would be shut down, along with nonunion plants in Utica, Ohio and Austin, Texas. The local asked what could be done to save the plant. Acuity asked for $4.3 million in annual savings. Mason and Fourth District International Representative Bill Dietz contacted the AFL-CIO's rapid shutdown response team in Ohio and asked the company to permit them access to the plant to help formulate proposals to make the facility more productive. Acuity refused.
Mason contacted the offices of two Ohio Congressmen, the governor's office and one Senator, all of whom said they would be willing to sit down with Acuity Brands. The company declined to speak with them.
"Tamera Mason and her team did everything they could to keep this plant open," says Dietz.
After exhausting all pleas to keep the assembly lines running, Local 1853 negotiated a severance package, winning an increase from the company's first offer. Still, says Dondrea, "Acuity set aside $17,000,000 for the closure and work transitions. Our severance payments amount to less than one-quarter of one percent of the money set aside."
As more Ohio companies legitimately struggle to survive and Ohio's unemployment rate climbs, Acuity's move to Mexico is particularly disturbing, says Bill Dietz. "I asked the lawyers across the bargaining table during effects bargaining how they could sleep at night being puppets for such a greedy company," he says.
"Hopefully, with a new presidential administration, we can get the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) modified to keep more companies from following Acuity's example," says Dietz.
"We will not let manufacturers parade around as `green,' progressive companies, while turning their backs on hard-working Americans," says IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "Sustainability must encompass the health and economic prosperity of the men and women whose labor will create the green economy of the future."