100 Modesto workers still locked out of Silgan can plant

01/02/2014 6:25 PM

01/02/2014 11:04 PM

About 100 Modesto workers have been locked out of their jobs at Silgan Containers Corp. for three weeks, and they say no progress has been made to resolve their labor dispute.

Silgan wants to freeze wages for two years, but the workers – who manufacture about 200 million cans a year – insist they deserve at least a 1 percent raise.

“Silgan has taken and taken and taken from us,” said Robert Harrison, who has worked at the Riverside Drive plant for 24 years and is on the Teamsters union negotiating team. “We need to take a hard-line stand to show them they can’t continue to take away from us. We’re trying to tell Silgan that we’re not going backwards anymore.”

There are three Silgan plants in Modesto and one in Riverbank, and they all have separate union contracts. The Riverside Drive plant’s contract expired Sept. 30. Before the lockout, union leaders said the skilled trade workers there earned about $23 to $27 per hour, with nonskilled employees earning about $14.

“Workers at the other Silgan plants probably earn on average at least $2 per hour more than us, and every one of them has better health and welfare benefits than us,” Harrison said. “We’ve accepted pay freezes before, and we’ve been forced to give up a lot of our benefits to get the pay raises we’ve received in the past.”

Numerous efforts by The Modesto Bee to contact Silgan officials for comment about the labor dispute have failed.

Silgan’s website boasts that it is “the largest manufacturer of metal food containers in North America with an overall share of approximately half of the market in 2012.” The company, which is headquartered in Stamford, Conn., sold $2.29 billion worth of metal containers in North America and Europe in 2012 and it reported record earnings during 2013.

No more contract negotiations are scheduled, efforts by a federal mediator haven’t worked, and Silgan has said it won’t sweeten its offer, according to union leaders.

“We’re all very anxious to get back to work. We’re good at what we do, we know it and Silgan knows it,” said Harrison, who recalled how shocked workers were Dec. 11 when the company’s managers handed out their final paychecks and told them Silgan was barring them from the plant.

‘It’s the principle’

The holiday season lockout meant that rather than enjoying a couple of paid days off for Christmas and New Year’s Day, all the plant’s workers essentially were indefinitely furloughed.

Workers on the picket line Thursday said they’ve been applying for unemployment benefits and getting some help from the Teamsters to make ends meet.

“You’ve got to conserve to get by,” said Shawn Tiede of Stockton, who has worked for Silgan the past 14 years.

In the short term, Tiede acknowledged, accepting a pay freeze would have been less financially damaging than being out of work for more than three weeks, but he said such a concession has long-term implications.

“It’s the principle and it’s our future,” explained Tiede, who is a machinist. “There’s been a steady decline in our health and welfare benefits and a constant chipping away of our wages.”

Others on the picket line agreed.

“We’ve got to stand up to them, otherwise we’re going to lose our pension and everything else,” said machinist Ron Henry, who has worked at the Riverside Drive facility for 29 years. “Our workers are united. Our vote (against Silgan’s contract proposal) was 77 to 1.’ ”

Gallon-size cans are specialty

Silgan is just the plant’s latest owner.

“It’s been run by probably six different companies since I got here,” Henry said. He said that has included California Home Brands, PanCan, Continental Can, PackCan, American National Can and Silgan.

There’s been significant consolidation in the can-making industry in recent decades. Silgan, which is a publicly traded company, launched in 1987, and it since has acquired 29 container manufacturing companies.

What hasn’t changed at the Riverside Drive plant is its main customer: Stanislaus Food Products, a privately owned producer of premium canned tomato products used mostly by restaurants.

Stanislaus Food’s plant is next to the Silgan facility in southeast Modesto’s Beard Industrial District. Silgan produces about 100 million tinplate gallon-size cans a year for that tomato canner.

A representative for Stanislaus Food said his company has no comment about Silgan’s labor dispute.

Silgan workers estimated they have been making about 50 million cans per year for Escalon Premier Brands, plus millions more for Seneca Foods, ConAgra Foods and Del Monte Foods.

Those workers said their plant makes more gallon-size cans than any other can maker in California and possibly the nation.

“By Silgan’s own admission, this is the most productive plant it’s got,” said Adam Ochoa, the secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 948. Ochoa said the union plans to picket the plant again todayand expects Teamsters from throughout the region to join the effort.

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