By Cady Kuzmich
WATERFORD — Those who remained on the picket line outside Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford despite increasingly frigid temperatures Thursday were bolstered by news this week that one of the nation’s leading progressive figures, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, supports their cause.
The Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate issued a statement earlier this week, saying that while he could not join those striking on Hudson River Road in person, “I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the 700 members of IUE and CWA Locals 81359 and 81380 in your fight against corporate greed and for the economic security of your families.”
Sanders’ statement came more than a month after the strike began and after union leaders and Momentive representatives were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. Those on strike say the contract offered by the company would negatively impact workers’ pensions and healthcare.
“At a time when corporate America is engaged in a ruthless race to the bottom, you are fighting back against efforts by a profitable company that’s trying to jack up your healthcare costs, undermine your vacation time, reduce 401(k) payments and take away healthcare benefits from retirees who worked for decades in a dangerous chemical plant environment,” wrote Sanders in his letter of support.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Senator Sanders has taken the time to read up, study the facts and show his support to 700 chemical workers trying to get a fair contract with a corporate bully,” said Dom Patrignani, president of the IUE CWA 359.
He said those on the picket line are still relying on burn barrels and wood to keep warm, as temperatures were expected to hit zero Thursday evening.
“Morale is high as we look after each other,” he added.
Momentive Spokeswoman Tina Reiber provided a prepared statement in reaction to Sanders’ support of the strikers.
She attributed changes in health care coverage to rising healthcare costs nationwide, which she said “have forced us to take prudent steps to contain medical, dental and prescription drug costs, including shifting employees to Consumer Health Plans, which can provide savings for both employers and employees.”
She noted that, while CHPs may have higher deductibles, they have lower upfront costs compared to alternatives.
“CHPs’ higher deductibles can be offset with the lower premium costs and Momentive’s contributions to employees’ Health Savings Accounts, typically resulting in an overall lower annual cost for most employees,” Reiber said in the prepared statement. “The offers made to the union aligned healthcare benefits with those that our other North America employees have had for years.”
In his statement of support, Sanders noted that the company is doing well enough to pay its CEO $5.4 million a year, while “the company’s refusal to negotiate in good faith has put the safety of surrounding communities at risk.”
In the first seven days of December, the Department of Environmental Conservation recorded seven separate spill incidents, none more than 25 gallons, on Hudson River Road in Waterford.
State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who represents the 113th District, visited the picket line earlier this month and later wrote a letter to Momentive CEO and President Jack Boss.
“In the full year from November 2015 to November 2016, Momentive reported 37 spills total, averaging just three per month,” Woerner wrote.
Reiber said safety was “of the utmost importance” to Momentive, in the prepared statement, adding that replacement workers have been trained and qualified to the same standards as all employees.