Buffett-owned plant accepts workers’ right to unionize
KENT – An aerospace supply company owned by billionaire Warren Buffett has agreed to a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board in a case that accused company managers of repeated violations of federal labor law.
As part of the settlement, the general manager of Protective Coatings Inc. in Kent will read aloud a letter to his employees promising to recognize their rights under federal law to form a union, and promising that his managers won’t do things to interfere with them exercising that right — including threatening them with taking their jobs away for supporting a union.
Under the settlement, company managers do not admit to any violations of the law.
But the fact that the company’s general manager will have to read the letter out loud in crew meetings – and then must post copies of it around the plant – makes the point, said Jon Holden, the president of Machinists Union District Lodge 751.
“Workers have a right under federal law to form a union, free from bullying and threats,” Holden said. “We’ve been telling the ProCoat workers that for months. Now they’re going to hear it from their employer as well.”
The settlement allows the company to avoid a potential trial before a federal administrative law judge – and it opens the door for workers at the company to vote Dec. 9 on whether to join District 751. That vote had been originally set for earlier this year, but was put on hold while the NLRB investigated complaints by the union that company managers had committed 14 separate violations of federal labor law.
The Labor Board found merit to 13 of the union’s complaints.
The company – commonly known as ProCoat — – is a subsidiary of Portland-based Precision Castparts, which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired in a $37.2 billion deal that closed early this year.
There are roughly 235 hourly workers at ProCoat’s plant in Kent, who are specialists in plating, coating, anodizing and polishing aircraft parts used by the Boeing Co. and other airplane and helicopter manufacturers.
Precision Castparts was one of the most-profitable players in the aerospace industry before it was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, generating profits of nearly $2 billion a year.
Despite that, the ProCoat facility in Kent is “one of the lowest-paying employers in our industry,” said Holden. Citing 2015 data from the Washington Department of Revenue, Holden said 60 percent of ProCoat production workers were paid less than $15 an hour.
Holden noted that Buffett has made public statements that “Berkshire Hathaway is not an anti-union employer,” and he’s been an outspoken advocate for reducing income inequality. So union officers were surprised when his company launched an aggressive anti-union campaign, which included the adoption of a personal conduct policy that allowed ProCoat managers to fire or discipline workers for taking part in union activities, even if they did it away from work and on their own time.
Holden said he’s hopeful that Buffett will instruct managers at ProCoat to stand down so workers could decide for themselves whether they want to join the union.
“Warren Buffett has said more than once that ‘people at the bottom should be doing better,’” Holden said. “Well, the people at ProCoat should be doing better. It’s my hope Mr. Buffett will do his part by allowing them to vote on union representation free of intimidation or coercion.”
Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at Boeing, District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents nearly 32,000 working men and women at 53 employers across Washington and California.
Think you’d be better off working under a union contract? Click here to talk with an IAM 751 representative about how to join the Machinists Union.