Teamsters strike surpasses 50-day mark in Canton

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Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O'Brien speaks at last week's solidarity rally at Independent Pipe. (Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 25)

Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O’Brien speaks at last week’s solidarity rally at Independent Pipe in Canton. (Photo courtesy of Teamsters Local 25)

Update: On September 29, Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O’Brien announced that a contract had been unanimously ratified by employees of Independent Pipe and Supply, officially ending the strike after 60 days.

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A bitter standoff between Teamsters workers and a Canton-based pipe distributor has dragged on into a second month with no signs of a resolution in sight.

The striking employees, consisting of more than 30 truck drivers and warehousemen at Independent Pipe and Supply Corp. on Whitman Road — all members of Teamsters Local 25 — officially stopped working on August 1 and Tuesday marked day number 50 on the picket line. (Another seven Teamsters workers are on strike at the company’s Somerville location.) During that time the two sides have met only once — on September 8 through federal mediators — but failed to make any progress.

“This is a very unfortunate situation,” stated Independent Pipe CEO Jeff Nierman in an email to the Citizen last week. Nierman said the family-owned company finds itself in uncharted waters, having experienced only one other strike many years ago that lasted only a few hours.

“This is obviously very different,” he said.

The strike has necessitated regular police details, and the Canton police have responded to more than a dozen disputes and disturbances at the picket line over the past eight weeks, charging five individuals with crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to assault and battery. An email inquiry to a Teamsters spokesman concerning the police activity was not returned and Nierman also refrained from commenting on the matter.

Yet the striking workers have also received considerable support — not only from other Teamsters locals but also other trade unions — and a “solidarity rally” held last Friday went ahead as planned without incident, drawing a large crowd of supporters.

“We had a huge turnout,” said James Donovan of Teamsters Local 25. “We probably had nearly 400 people so we got a ton of solidarity … There was a huge showing from the labor movement, people from all over New England, and the building trades have been great throughout this.”

Several top union leaders spoke at Friday’s rally, including Teamsters Local 25 President Sean O’Brien along with Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman and Mass Building Trades Council President Frank Callahan.

The Teamsters, through a spokesman, explained that the “driving force” behind the strike is a disagreement over healthcare. The spokesman added that Independent Pipe is seeking several concessions throughout the bargaining process.

Nierman, however, vigorously defended his company’s offer while denying that they have sought even a “single concession.”

“The striking employees, truck drivers and warehousemen, already receive $25.56 per hour plus pension contributions of an additional $5.69 per hour, and we have proposed wage increases of 70 cents per hour in each year of the contract, as well as increases in pension contributions,” he said. “We’ve also proposed to maintain their current health insurance plan, of which Independent Pipe pays 85 percent, and we’ve proposed to add dental and vision benefits.”

Nierman said the Teamsters have insisted that Independent Pipe provide health insurance through the union’s health and welfare fund and pay family plan premiums for all employees regardless of whether or not they select a family plan. He added that the Teamsters only recently offered to make a “very small employee contribution” for healthcare and that their current proposal would be cost-prohibitive for the company.

“Since none of our local competitors in the pipe, valve and fitting industry are unionized, they do not have these same extraordinary labor costs,” said Nierman. “We just cannot put ourselves at that competitive disadvantage.”

While declining to get into specifics, the Teamsters spokesman maintained that the company’s healthcare offer is not acceptable, and he characterized Independent Pipe as a “very profitable company” that is taking a “very concessionary approach” to negotiations.

Approached for comment at the solidarity rally, Donovan also declined to get into specifics about the union’s position. “We generally do [refrain from commenting] and we respect the bargaining process and we don’t want to bargain in the newspaper,” he said. “That’s not our objective.”

One Teamsters steward who attended the rally in support of the striking workers did agree to share his thoughts on the impasse. “A lot of these companies, unfortunately, they get as big as they are off the good labor that they’ve got, but when they get here they forget where they came from,” he said. “They don’t want to make [sufficient] contributions to health and welfare, pension funds, none of that.”

The steward also took issue with the company’s decision to hire temporary replacement workers. “So they’d rather pay those guys something like $1,000 or $2,000 a week plus all the police detail, plus the security detail, than give these hardworking Teamsters that have been here for years — they’re trained professional truck drivers, not fly by night truck drivers, and trained forklift operators — health and welfare and pension.”

However, Nierman, the Independent Pipe CEO, strongly believes his company has been fair to its employees, having been unionized for the past 50 years.

“The striking employees already receive excellent health insurance,” he insisted. “It should also be noted that this is the very same health insurance plan that all other Independent Pipe employees and owners participate in. We believe these benefits are extremely competitive in our industry.”

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