PORTAGE | For the last month, striking workers have crowded around burn barrels in subzero temperatures and blizzard-like conditions outside a steel service center.
They have been picketing Neo Industries in Portage in an effort to save the jobs of 10 union truck drivers who have worked there for as long as 18 years.
The company, which wants to outsource truck driving to contractors, has upped the severance package it has offered three times during the negotiations. But it refuses to budge on the layoffs, United Steelworkers Local 2003 president Carlos Luna said.
"It's like we're negotiating with ourselves," Luna said. "We tried to get them to keep the drivers for a year, to buy them time to find new jobs, but they didn't even want to do that."
The union will bring the company's latest proposal back to the workers for a vote on Friday. Local 2003, which represents workers at 42 companies across Northwest Indiana, will offer no recommendation on how they should vote.
Union leaders cannot endorse a proposed contract that cuts the plant's workforce nearly in half but understand the workers and their families have been suffering hardships during the strike, which began on Feb. 7, Luna said.
"They've been out there for over a month," he said. "They've been out there on cold days where it's below zero. They've been getting hit with storms like all the snow that's coming tonight. They've got bills coming in."
Neo Industries grinds and puts chrome plating on rolls of steel at its plant on Willowcreek Road. The company and union have been trying to negotiate a new 5-year contract since October, and the current contract expired in November. The company has continued to operate with non-union labor brought in during the strike.
President Kevin Walsh has said he thought the company's offer was fair and that he was disappointed by the strike. He has declined to comment on negotiations, saying the National Labor Relations Board would not allow him to discuss any specifics.
Neo Industries wants to cut 10 of the 22 positions at the plant, Luna said. The company says the cuts will save between $22,000 and $33,000 a month, but the union questions those figures.
The union threw out multiple proposals to keep the truck driver jobs, including making one a foreman who would schedule trips to make that part of the business more cost-effective, Luna said. The company rejected all the union's ideas, so union negotiators attempted to get a year and then six months of extra employment for the truck drivers so they would have time to find new jobs.
When the company declined, the union tried to negotiate higher severance packages, based on what the company projects it will save through the layoffs. Initiative severance packages were as low as $1,000. The proposed severance pay in the company's latest proposal is under $10,000 per worker, and enough to cover a few months of bills, Luna said.
"It's hard to swallow," he said. "We were told they needed a five-year deal with the mill and a five-year deal with the union, or they'd have to close the doors. They got a contract with the mill but not the union, and they haven't closed their doors. Instead, they're spending all this money on scabs and security."
Local 2003 has filled multiple complaints with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the company has negotiated in bad faith and failed to provide accurate financial figures, Luna said. Neo Industries also has filed a complaint against the union.