It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. About 110 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at Moncure Plywood LLC — nearly half the 225-person work force — walked off the job last July, complaining about longer work weeks and higher health-insurance costs. With unemployment in Chatham County only 5.6%, there wouldn’t be a lot of people clamoring to replace them.
But the strike that many workers expected to last only a few weeks dragged into the fall and winter, then the spring. As other factories shut down, they shed employees; Moncure Plywood hired them. Meanwhile, strikers were living on $150 a week from the union strike fund.
In April, the union and company agreed on a three-year contract that ended the strike but not the workers’ woes. Many might have lost their jobs for good. That’s because the recession hammered the company, which makes plywood for the struggling furniture industry. Moncure Plywood agreed to rehire only 25 strikers immediately. In early May, it was deciding whether to recall more.
Jeff Matuszak, sales and marketing manager at the plant, says the tanking economy forced the company to start laying off workers in October, cutting about 70 jobs before the end of the year. By the time the strike ended, it was down to 106 and was up to only 116 in early May. “The economic downturn was the main reason for the drop in labor. However, the factory was able to become more efficient, thereby also driving down its labor cost.”
Despite the uncertainty, Lewis Cameron, president of the union local, believes the strike was worth it. Cameron, who has been at the factory 35 years, says things went downhill after Greenwich, Conn.-based Atlas Holdings bought Moncure Plywood in 2005 and started making more demands. Employees struck because the company wanted them to work 60-hour weeks and pay three times as much for health coverage. The new contract cuts the workweek to 50 hours and lessens the insurance increase.
But he admits that the victories came with pain. “They’ve cut quite a few jobs. Some departments were cut in half. It’s been kind of rough on some people.” Cameron, who was demoted from mechanic to boiler operator, contends that even those that didn’t get their jobs back are better off. Now that the strike is over, they’re eligible for unemployment benefits, which is more than the strike pay. “We could ill afford to give that company all the concessions they wanted. If we had given them all those, the union would have been of no effect at all.”
When they scheduled a two-day conference for late April, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and other organizers wanted to draw attention to the Triangle video-game industry — at least 30 companies employing more than 1,200. Among them are superstars such as Cary-based Epic Games Inc., which developed the Gears of War franchise. Some of the attention was not so welcome. The day before the event, Raleigh-based Atomic Games Inc. lost its publisher, Japan’s Konami Digital Entertainment Inc., due to the outcry over Six Days in Fallujah, based on the bloody 2004 battle in Iraq. Relatives of troops killed complain that the game makes light of the deaths. The event drew 730 — nearly double what organizers had expected. Among the speakers was Atomic CEO Peter Tamte, who says the company will continue work on the game and look for a new publisher.