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Workers strike for higher wages at Elkhart piping manufacturer

An image of strikers standing around tents and a barrel with fire in it. A sign on one of the tents reads, "My kids cannot eat health insurance."
Adam Rayes
/
IPB News
More than 100 employees are on strike at a Northern Indiana piping manufacturer, Elkhart Products Corporation.

More than 100 employees are on strike at a Northern Indiana piping manufacturer, Elkhart Products Corporation.

From the picket line Friday, workers said they were striking for a wage increase that would account for rising health insurance costs after the company’s final 2-year contract proposal included a 50-cent raise.

“It's the worst contract I've ever seen here,” said Glen Hershberger, a nearly 46-year employee who has experienced several contract negotiations with the company. “I've taken 25-cent raises. But I honestly think that the company expected us to take it just like we always have. And the people are just fed up. And I get it.”

All of the facility’s workers are members of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which provides their current health plan. Hershberger said the last time workers at Elkhart Products went on strike was in the 60s.

The members voted overwhelmingly to begin striking on Monday, said David Gault, a business representative for IAM’s Indianapolis-based Local Lodge 2018.

Elkhart Products Corporation, and its Netherlands-based owner Aalberts, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a statement to ABC57, the company said “After several months of bargaining in good faith, we presented a package that allowed employees to maintain coverage under the Union’s health plan despite an unprecedented 60% hike in premiums. We are disappointed by the Union’s decision to strike, but are committed to ongoing discussions and are hopeful that an agreement can still be reached.”

The union told the company that premiums were rising ahead of contract negotiations and gave them an opportunity to try to find an alternative health insurance provider, according to Gault.

“[The company] should have planned ahead knowing that the insurance costs were going to go up because people were going out with COVID and being hospitalized,” he said.

The company was given notice of the increase in premium costs about 16 weeks ago, Gaul said. Even after a 40-day extension on contract negotiations, the company told the union it was unable to find any suitable alternative healthcare providers — leaving the union provider as the only option.

“We offered to pay 15% out of our member's wages [for the health insurance],” he said. “But we were expecting a raise to cover that 15% at least.”

The 50-cent raise was the company’s “best and final offer,” Gault said, which would have members taking home $70 less per week than before once the new premium was deducted.

“I really struggle with them trying to negotiate a contract that makes our members take less pay home in this climate, when inflation [makes] gas, groceries, everything more expensive,” he said.

To end the strike, the union is asking the company to give workers a raise that will fully cover the new insurance premium, Gault said. As of Friday afternoon, he hasn’t gotten a response from Elkhart Products.

“They're losing money daily, probably a lot daily,” said longtime employee Hershberger. “It's a strike. I mean, nobody wins in the strike, period. They don't win. We're losing money, too.”

But, he said it's important to stand in solidarity with his fellow workers for a better wage, even as a 72-year-old who could technically retire and move on from the company.

Contact reporter Adam at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

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Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.