Bakers enlist international backing for locked-out Iowa members

KEOKUK, Iowa (PAI) – Trying to repeat their success in a contract fight with the makers of Dannon Yogurt, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union have turned to national and international unions and invoked international human rights standards to garner support for 240 locked-out workers from the Roquette corn-milling plant in Keokuk, Iowa.

Joining the crusade: The International Union of Farm, Food and Hotel Workers (IUF), the AFL-CIO, the LabourStart website and others.  Their target: Roquette Frères, which IUF calls “a French-based manufacturer of starch and sugar derivatives” used in foods, beverages and manufacturing applications.

Its U.S. subsidiary, Roquette America, locked out the Bakery Workers on Sept. 28 after they rejected the latest contract offer from the very profitable firm – whose CEO in 2009 signed a social compact promising to respect worker rights.

“Management at Roquette America apparently hasn’t been brought up to speed on this,” IUF commented laconically.

“BCTGM Local 48G represents 240 workers at the Keokuk plant, which manufactures starches, including the high fructose corn syrup used by companies including Coca-Cola and Heinz,” IUF said in a world-wide alert.

When bargaining for a new pact began Nov. 14, Roquette demanded “among other reductions and concessions,” the right to hire temps at half wages and no benefits, an end to seniority, no overtime for weekend work and elimination of sick, personal and maternity leave. Roquette America also wants to eliminate the company pension plan, load high increases in health care costs on the workers, and freeze wages for four years.  When the workers understandably voted “no,” Roquette gave them a 24-hour take-It-or-else ultimatum before locking them out on Nov. 28.  They’ve been walking picket lines in Iowa’s cold ever since.

Local 48G and BCTGM overall turned to the the AFL-CIO in the fight. The fed cited the Roquette CEO’s agreement to international worker standards. BCTGM asked the IUF to bring pressure on the firm, in France. That’s how BCTGM won a similar contract struggle before with French-based Groupe Dannone, the parent firm for Dannon Yogurt, which was trying to jam a concessionary contract down the throats of its workers in Ohio.

“Roquette workers are the latest union workforce to be attacked by a vicious corporate offensive to profit from high unemployment by rolling back wages and conditions at a time of healthy profits and cheap credit,” IUF said.  “The union has two demands: an immediate end to the lockout, and an unconditional return to negotiations.”

The AFL-CIO took the Roquette workers’ plight to the United Nations. “In Sept. 2009, the CEO of Roquette, Guy Talbordet, signed…and committed to support the principles of the UN Global Compact which apply to respecting human and labor rights, the environment, and fighting corruption,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote to George Kell, who heads the UN body overseeing it. Roquette’s actions in Keokuk “directly violate” it, and “undermine its legitimacy.”

Image: This small city has become the site of a heated international labor battle. Jimmy Emerson // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.