Courtesy of Jess Petronella

Earlier this month, 150 workers at Glanbia Nutritionals in West Haven and Orange, CT. filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, kicking off the largest union vote Connecticut has seen since October 2019. 

The bargaining unit, made up of production, maintenance, sanitation, driver and warehouse employees, is petitioning to be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 371. Their employer, the Irish food production conglomerate Glanbia Nutritionals, has moved swiftly to crush the nascent unionization effort.

“I saw it as more of an issue of human dignity,” said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation by the company, on why he was supporting the union. “No one should have to work two or three jobs because they can’t make enough at one job or a second job. They should — everyone should — be able to go to work, get their paycheck, and know that they can afford to put food on the table.”

This was not the first time workers have tried to unionize at Glanbia’s Connecticut plants. Shortly after being acquired by Glanbia in 2019, unionization efforts began as a result of a host of changes and mobilization.

Under Glanbia, worker health care plans saw their in-network deductible increase from zero dollars to $3,500. The employer’s long standing profit-sharing program also saw changes. The program, which one worker estimated paid out around $4,000 a year, was scrapped by Glanbia in favor of a bonus system that paid workers based on seniority. To earn a $4,000 bonus under the new system, one would have to work at Glanbia for 180 years.

Neither of these or a myriad of other changes alone was enough to spark a union drive, and multiple signature campaigns petered out short of a majority. But they contributed to a sense of frustration that three sources noted persisted among the workforce for the next couple years.

“I think even though the changes were occurring in 2019, I still think it wasn’t bad enough to the point where people want to organize,” Jess Petronella, Local 371’s organizing director, told the News. “But you know, little by little things get taken away. And then they’re sick of it.”

Reflecting on what changed in fall 2021, David Amos, a slitter operator for Glanbia for two years, was clear. He currently serves as one of the workers on the Organizing Committee inside the factories. 

“I think what really broke the camel’s back was they tried to tell us that we will have to work an extra day a week, but with no pay increase,” Amos said.

Glanbia has an atypical schedule, with production employees working three 12.5 hour shifts per week. In November 2021, the company announced that in January, staff would be moving to four 12.5 hour shifts per week, with no accompanying increase in pay.  

For three workers that the News spoke to, the change’s impact cannot be overstated.

“That was like the D-Day type of thing,” the anonymous Glanbia worker told the News. “Some of us have second jobs on these days when we’re not working here. And some of us have family obligations, child care obligations or whatever they may need. Maybe someone has a wife and child and on the off days from Glanbia their spouse or significant other is working and they’re off taking care of the child. This would totally destroy all of that.”

Workers reached out to Local 371, and within two weeks enough people had signed union authorization cards to support unionization. Glanbia was presented with the option of voluntarily recognizing the union, but declined to do so, despite what the union categorizes as a “strong majority” of the workforce having signed on. 

In a statement to the News, Glanbia Director of Corporate Affairs Martha Kavanagh said that “We support the right of employees to choose to be represented, or not, by a union. Glanbia is working with the National Labor Relations Board regarding the next steps in this process.”

On Jan. 5, Local 371 formally filed for an election. Glanbia subsequently began an anti-union campaign. They put up anti-union flyers, which the News obtained, throughout the factory corridors, on the bathroom doors, next to time-clocks and on screens in the cafeteria.

At the same time, the company began holding “captive audience meetings,” where employees were required to attend and listen to both managers and outside employee relations consultants who specialize in union-busting and are often paid thousands of dollars a day. 

“It is terrible. It is all about negativity,” Amos said of the meetings. 

Petronella concurred. “I think anytime that you’re investing in anti-union consultants, and anti-union law firms and you’re trying to discourage people into unionizing, it is not a fair election.”

Even more galling for some of Glanbia’s workers is that the company is fully unionized in its home country of Ireland. Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, or SIPTU, represents 900 Glanbia workers throughout Ireland. SIPTU released a statement of support for the Connecticut organizing drive, expressing their “solidarity and unflinching support for the workers.”

“It’s even more frustrating and disheartening that we know that they have the union in Ireland,” one worker told the News. “The company, both in Ireland and in West Haven, knows that we know and they still don’t want to do the right thing. Because they want to preserve the status quo.”

Still, multiple workers remain excited about the prospect of unionizing. 

When asked what a unionized Glanbia would look like, Amos is almost giddy. “They fight, they fight, they fight for the people,” he said of Local 371. “They fight well, they fight to get our word heard. Our voices heard within the building.”

At a Jan. 26 NLRB hearing, a mail-in ballot election was set, with ballots mailed out on Feb. 22 and due back by Mar. 15. Vote tabulation will occur the following day. 

Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.