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By JOSH FUNK AP Business Writer
Published: 30 December 2021

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Several hundred striking workers at a manufacturing facility owned by Berkshire Hathaway have picked up some high-profile support from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, but the company's CEO, Warren Buffett, has declined to get involved in the contract dispute.

Sanders, who has been a longtime supporter of labor unions, sent a letter to Buffett this week urging him to intervene in the dispute between Berkshire's Precision Castparts unit and the United Steelworkers Local 40 union in West Virginia to make sure workers get a fair contract.

“At a time when this company and Berkshire Hathaway are both doing very well, there is no reason why workers employed by you should be worrying about whether they will be able to feed their children or have health care,” Sanders wrote to the billionaire. “There is no reason why the standard of living of these hard working Americans should decline. I know that you and Berkshire Hathaway can do better than that.”

Pandemic conditions

The strike includes roughly 450 workers who have been on the picket line outside the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, since Oct. 1. The facility makes specialized alloys that are used in military jet engines, commercial planes, spacecraft and other equipment used in high-temperature, high-pressure environments.

There have already been a number of high-profile strikes across the country this year because labor unions feel emboldened to hold out for more amid the ongoing worker shortages. Many manufacturing workers also feel like they deserve substantial raises after keeping their plants operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

At Special Metals, the company has been offering only a $2,000 signing bonus and modest raises in the later years of the contract that Sanders said won't keep up with the current high inflation rate. The company also proposed more than tripling the amount that employees would pay for their health insurance.

“When you have an extremely profitable, well-financed corporation owned by one of the wealthiest guys in the world, you know what, you should not be demanding wage cuts from your workers and cuts in their health care benefits. That’s just wrong,” Sanders said in an interview Wednesday.

Shifting responsibility

The Vermont Democrat and former presidential candidate has been working with unions across the country this year, and he even joined striking Kellogg's cereal plant workers at a rally earlier this month before they agreed on a new contract. Sanders said workers at Berkshire's 90-odd companies shouldn't have to make major concessions this year when the conglomerate reported a $10 billion profit in its most-recent quarter.

Buffett has long said that he allows the companies Berkshire owns to largely operate independently once he names their CEOs. Buffett focuses on finding the best ways to invest Berkshire’s roughly $150 billion in cash while staying out of the day-to-day operations of the Omaha, Nebraska-based company’s subsidiaries.

“Our companies deal individually with their own labor and personnel decisions (except for the selection of the CEO),” Buffett said in a letter back to Sanders. “We have never purchased or sold a company because of its union or non-union status. Some of our companies have as many as a dozen unions; others have none.”

Berkshire Hathaway owns an eclectic mix of different businesses, including Geico insurance, BNSF railroad, a number of major utilities, several large manufacturers alongside more retail operations like Dairy Queen and See's Candy.

Buffett did not respond Wednesday to questions from The Associated Press about the labor dispute. He told Sanders in his response that he would forward the senator's letter to the CEO of Precision Castparts in Portland, Oregon, but that he won't make any recommendations to him.

“He is responsible for his business,” Buffett said about the head of the aviation parts manufacturer.

What is fair?

Special Metals has held several negotiating sessions with the union since the strike began, but so far they have been unable to reach an agreement. They are scheduled to return to the bargaining table next week.

Chad Thompson, president of the local union, said workers aren't expecting to see significant raises in this contract, but they want to hang onto the benefits they already have and receive raises similar to what they have received in the past.

“We’re willing to talk about paying a little more here and there or maybe not getting as much of a raise as what we usually get in contracts to try to offset that,” Thompson said. “We’re willing to pay what we think is fair — what we can agree to as fair — but we just don’t think they’re there.

"We don’t think they’re even being in the ballpark of fair.”

Precision Castparts spokesman David Dugan said the company is committed to reaching a fair agreement through negotiations. During the strike, the company has been using outside workers to try and keep the Special Metals plant operating.

“Our desire is to achieve a respectful and productive relationship with our employees, and we have ultimately achieved that goal in previous contract negotiations over many years,” Dugan said.

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