Laid-off Bayer workers still fighting for their jobs

Bayer Healthcare on Dwight in Berkeley. Photos by Lance Knobel

When 414 workers at Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals vote on a new contract on today, Anita Holloway won’t be among them.

Holloway worked in janitorial services at Bayer Healthcare on Dwight Way for three years, earning $22.65 an hour. Then in August 2010, she and 28 other union members were laid off, with the faint promise of being rehired when times got better.

Many of those workers decided to take severance and separate themselves from the company. But Holloway didn’t and has been hoping that she might get “recalled,” a technical term used in the contract between Bayer and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents the employees.

The phone call that Holloway had been waiting for came in May. Bayer contacted the union and said it had numerous jobs opening up, according to Donal Mahon, an ILWU organizer. He called the 10 people who were still hoping for reemployment by Bayer, and all of them indicated their eagerness to return. The recall came at the right time, said Mahon, because the employees could only hold onto their seniority and recall rights until Aug. 22, 2011.

But then something went wrong, said Mahon. Bayer backed away from its offer to bring back the ten employees and said it could actually only reemploy two people. Holloway was not one of them.

When it became clear to the union that its workers would soon lose their seniority, organizers asked Bayer to extend the “recall rights” for 90 days. Bayer didn’t respond to the offer, said Mahon, Two weeks later, new contract negotiations began, and Bayer said it would extend the recall rights only if the union approved a new contract by Aug. 24th, said Mahon. Part of the terms of the proposed contract would give Bayer the right to contract out janitorial work, effectively eliminating the job Holloway hoped to reclaim, said Mahon.

“They led the union and all the people on the recall list to believe they would call us back,” said Holloway, who lives in Richmond. “They blindsided us, and started using us as a bargaining chip in the contract negotiations.”

Sreejit Mohan, Bayer’s director of public policy and communications, said the situation is much more nuanced than the way the union has portrayed. However, since workers are voting on a proposed contract today, it would not be appropriate to discuss any employment issues, he said.

“We just want to be seen as fair to our employees,” he said.

A building on the 43-acre Bayer campus

Union officials have staged protests and collected signatures to petition Bayer to rehire its workers. They are particularly aggrieved because of Bayer’s special relationship with Berkeley and the huge profits made on the medicine manufactured at the Berkeley plant.

Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceutical, with 1,500 employees, is the second-largest employer in Berkeley after the University of California.  (Although just a small percentage of workers live in Berkeley). In 2009, when Bayer’s corporate parent Bayer AG of Germany was trying to decide whether to outsource some of the medicine made on site, East Bay cities made a push to retain the company. Berkeley worked with Oakland to extend that city’s enterprise zone northward to include the 43-acre Bayer facility.

Including Bayer in the zone made the company eligible for $10 million in state tax breaks for investments in equipment and in energy cost savings, according to Dave Fogarty, Berkeley’s economic development project coordinator. Bayer is now investing $100 million to upgrade its manufacturing equipment, said Mohan. The construction should be completed by the end of 2012, and Bayer hopes to start manufacturing on the new equipment in 2013, he said.

Bayer and Berkeley also signed a 30-year development agreement in 1992. The city guaranteed zoning changes would not affect the company and streamlined site development. In exchange, Bayer agreed to make a number of investments, including the creation of the Berkeley BioTech Academy, which has introduced 1,000 high schools students to the biotech field. Bayer has also invested in job training, transportation, housing and environmental protection. Bayer estimates it has paid Berkeley $455,000 through the development agreement, according to a 2010 report prepared by the company. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to about $20 million, according to the report.

Bayer Healthcare has had a banner year, according to Mahon, the union rep. It makes Kogenate, a drug used to treat hemophilia. The drug brought in $1.45 billion in 2010, and sales have already increased by 14% this year, said Mahon. Bayer stands to benefit even more when new provisions of the health care reform law go into effect in 2012, according to a study prepared in May by students at UC Berkeley.

That’s why union officials can’t understand why Bayer is trying to cut janitorial jobs. And while the proposed contract has raises of 3.1% to 3.4%  each year for the next four years, it also is calling on workers to pay a larger share of their health care costs.  ILWU members currently pay $217 a month; that would go up to $354 a month by the end of the contract, said Mahon.

For that reason, the union negotiating committee is recommended that workers vote against the proposed contract on Wednesday.

“If we are going to make this much money for them we ought to get part  of the reward,” said Mahon.

Even when Bayer workers agree to a new contract, it doesn’t look good for Holloway and the other workers who were hoping for a recall, he said. As of now, they are not reemployed and have lost their seniority. (The union has proposed a two-tier system for janitors in the contract. New hires would start at $15 an hour instead of $21 an hour.)

“It’s upsetting,”  said Holloway. “For them to dangle a carrot like that, to imply they are going to bring us back, to me, that’s a breach (of contract). “

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.