Local UAW members go on strike at East Dubuque fertilizer plant

EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. — Nearly 100 members of a local United Auto Workers chapter have gone on strike at an East Dubuque fertilizer plant.

The strike at East Dubuque Nitrogen Fertilizers LLC began Wednesday after recent negotiations stalled between company executives and bargaining representatives from UAW Local 1391. The prior contract ended Tuesday, and the strike began Wednesday.

The local UAW represents 94 of the plant’s employees, roughly 60% of the plant’s more than 150 employees, based on employment numbers from Greater Dubuque Development Corp. The company did not respond to requests to verify that number.

“We went into negotiations with the company, but we just weren’t making any ground,” local union president and 16-year plant employee Doug Glab said from the picket line. “We aren’t asking for a lot, but we have a lot of good people who have families to support.”

East Dubuque Nitrogen Fertilizers has operated under several names — including Rentech Nitrogen — and owners in East Dubuque since it opened in 1965. It produces anhydrous ammonia, nitric acid and liquid urea, among other products for agricultural and commercial customers.

The plant currently is owned by CVR Partners, a fertilizer manufacturing company based in Sugar Land, Texas, that acquired the plant in 2016.

Reached by email, CVR Senior Corporate and Governmental Affairs Director Brandee Stephens confirmed the lapse of the local union’s contract and provided the following statement:

“While we value our relationship with the UAW Local 1391 membership and are disappointed that a new contract has not been agreed upon, we have contingency plans in place to help maintain safe and reliable operations and provide uninterrupted service to our customers.”

Additional requests for comment were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Plant compressor operator and local union recording secretary Dusty Glab said the largest point of contention between the union and the company is the topic of retirement benefits. Instead of a pension plan, the company offers a 401(k) program with an employer match.

Dusty Glab said the union wants the company to guarantee to maintain their match — though he declined to share at what percent or capacity — as he said there was a recent year when the company froze its match program before later reinstating it.

“We work a lot of swing shifts, a lot of nights and a lot of weekends and holidays, … and we’re dealing with chemicals so it can be a dangerous job,” he said. “We just want to know that at the end of our working career, we’ll be able to live a good, normal life with (contributions and matches from) our 401(k).”

By Wednesday afternoon, a few dozen employees had gathered at the intersection of U.S. 20 and Chemical Plant Road that leads to the East Dubuque plant, holding strike signs and waving at passing cars.

Several drivers waved back in response or honked their horns as they passed the group. On one end of the picket line, a small grill was set up to prepare hot dogs and other food for the workers.

Doug Glab said Wednesday that union members would keep the line until a satisfactory agreement is reached with the company, adding that he is waiting to hear from the company about when negotiations will resume.

“We’re all here under a shared goal, all here to show a unified front,” he said. “We want to work, and we hope that they want us to work, so hopefully they’ll eventually see that it’s worth it to pay for our skill and come to the table ready to negotiate.”