Above photo: Teamsters picket outside MonoSol plant in LaPorte. Joseph S. Pete.
‘Damn near slave labor.’
LaPorte – Firewood was stacked high outside the MonoSol plant as bundled-up Teamsters huddled around burn barrels and open fires in the frigid chill.
The plant that normally cranks out water-dissolvable film for Tide Pods and other single-use detergents and dishwasher soaps sat quietly behind a barbed wire fence, its windows dark and its parking lot empty.
Workers picketed outside. They stood in circles in the bitter cold amid the acrid smell of wood smoke, a giant inflatable Scabby the Rat and a Teamsters semi-trailer truck. Passing trucks often blared their horns in solidarity in the industrial park.
Their tents were stocked with bottled water and other provisions. They brought in porta-potties and Frisbee golf to pass the time. They’re prepared to stick it out for the long haul.
Teamsters Local 135 is holding out for a new contract that would put a stop to compulsory overtime and 60-hour workweeks and also boost workers’ pay after they got no bonuses while working long hours through the coronavirus pandemic.
“These guys don’t mind working. They’re hard workers,” Teamsters Local 135 President-elect Dustin Roach said. “They bust their (expletive). But this is damn near slave labor. Every member out here works 60 hours a week. Management barely works 40. They deserve more. Management doesn’t have to not see their family, not be with their wife, not be with their kids, not have to worry about using vacation to spend a day with their family and worry about being fired because of it.”
MonoSol, a subsidiary of Japan-based chemical manufacturing company Kuraray, locked the workers out at noon Wednesday in anticipation of a strike after the workers overwhelmingly rejected MonoSol’s last contract offer.
The company offered 17.6% wage increases over four years, a $5,000 signing bonus and more compensation for good attendance.
“Our goal continues to be agreeing to a competitive, equitable and sustainable union contract that recognizes economic realities and works for our employees, our customers and the company,” Vice President of Corporate Affairs Matthew Vander Laan said. “We are willing to continue bargaining in good faith to reach a new agreement.”
About 192 of MonoSols 800 employees worldwide work at the LaPorte plant, the company’s largest. It has a corporate headquarters, two plants in Portage and another factory in Lebanon downstate.
“We are well-prepared to continue serving our customers,” he said.
Tyler Darnell has worked at the plant for 11 of the 14 years it’s been open. He said he’s been forced to work 60-hour weeks since he started.
“It’s 60 hours every week,” he said. “It’s rough.”
Darnell has a wife and four kids he would like to spend more time with.
“I’ve had to miss a lot of sports, concerts, Christmas, anything,” he said. “I got four kids. They do football, baseball, everything.”
The plant runs 24 hours, 365 days a year to meet the demand for Tide Pods and other single-use detergents and dishwasher soap, Roach said.
“They’re getting forced in on holidays, Christmas,” he said. “They need to hire more people, period. They’re screwing these guys around. They don’t want to call it an understaffing issue. It’s an understaffing issue. They’re running their operation off the backs of these people and their families. It’s got to stop. It will stop. We’ll stand out here as long as it takes. It will stop. If you have to work 62 hours a week, something’s not right.”
Workers would be willing to do some voluntary overtime but shouldn’t be compelled to by an attendance policy that allows for no paid sick days, Roach said.
“Some guys love overtime,” he said. “But when they opened 14 years ago, they told them just help us get through it until we get more workers hired and trained. It’s 14 years later. We’re done. We’re going to stay out here until this gets resolved.”
Workers work 12-hour shifts five days in a row, often alternating between day shifts one week and night shifts the next, Roach said. They also often don’t know whether the fifth 12-hour shift in a week will be a day or night shift until the last minute, sometimes as late as Friday at 5 p.m., depending on seniority, he said.
“They want to help this company. They want to build this company,” he said. “But this company doesn’t want to build these people. That’s not what this company should be about. They say they’re the best and the brightest, and I think they’re the worst and the sickest.”
The grueling schedule of such long workweeks takes a toll over time, Darnell said.
“Sleep is two, three hours a night,” he said. “It’s not much.”
Since October 2020, MonoSol has terminated 15 workers for taking time off, Roach said.
“That’s workers who needed to go home,” he said. “They had a problem at home. They needed to go to their son’s baseball game. We don’t live to work. We work to live. MonoSol is putting profits over people. We plan to put a stop to it.”