Rumors of striking employees at Giant Cement, Harleyville, South Carolina being told to "hit the road" Friday morning were not true, a company spokesman says. "The rumor this morning that we fired over 100 people is not true," said John Von Tress, vice president of operations for Giant Cement Holding Inc. "You cannot fire people for striking. They are protected under the national Labor Relations clause." Union members at the Giant Cement plant shut down equipment, walked off the job Aug. 19 and began picketing the site. They had been working without a contract since April 2003 after rejecting a deal the company called its final offer. Richard K. Thomas, international representative for the United Steel Workers, said union members met Aug. 19 with company officials but decided to strike.
Thomas has said key issues are the company wants employees to contribute to health insurance premiums for the first time and the union wants a change in how pensions are distributed for new employees. Both Giant Cement and United Steel Workers officials say they are hoping for a resolution that will end the ongoing strike.
"We have since shut down various portions of the plant," Von Tress said. "We have kept the new portions of the plant running and have shut down two of the older kilns. The new kiln had been shut down before the strike, but has since been restarted, he said. “We are running it with supervisors and managers. We are running virtually everything but the two old kilns, which we asked them to shut down on their way out," Von Tress said.
Supervisors and managers are putting in a lot of hours to keep the company up and running, he said. "It is something we have to do to protect the company and protect our customers. At a time of cement shortage, we can’t allow our customers to run out of cement," Von Tress said.
Healthcare, retirement and language-related issues seem to be points on which both sides are having difficulty finding common ground. "We have asked employees to help pay for their health insurance," Von Tress said. Under the current contract, the employer pays 90 per cent and the employee pays 10 per cent, he said.
"Prior to the October 2003 contract, the company paid it all. For a single employee, they would pay $38 per month, with a spouse $78, with a family $115 per month. In 2004, the average employee made $66,000," Von Tress said "There were some hourly union employees that made over $100,000 last year. We are a very desirable place to work because of our wages and benefits. Most of our employees are very long-term employees who have been with us for many years."
On Friday, 137 Giant Cement employees still stood at the gate of the Harleyville plant, hoping the impasse would soon come to an end.