Courtesy of Jess Petronella

Union yes? One hundred and fifty-four workers at Glanbia Nutritionals plants in West Haven, CT and Orange, CT will have a chance to respond to that question by March 15. 

The workers initially filed for an election to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 371 in early January. At the time, employees cited low-pay, high healthcare deductibles and the company’s addition of a fourth weekly 12.5 hour shift as key factors to their unionization efforts. 

However, the intervening months have proved difficult for the campaign, as the union has faced an extensive and well funded effort by the company to dissuade workers from organizing. Glanbia has employed two professional union-busters from California-based company Action Resources, who have put up dozens of flyers, held multiple mandatory meetings where management and consultants urged workers not to unionize and been accused of violating U.S. labor law in their efforts to stop the drive.     

“Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure where things are falling,” said Roger Weldon, a production supplies specialist in the plant and member of the workers Organizing Committee. “You know, because people have been getting battered by union-busters for so long.” 

Nonetheless, UFCW and Glanbia workers have continued to receive support from the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, or SIPTU. SIPTU — Ireland’s largest union — represents over 900 Glanbia workers on the island and has pushed for the Irish company to voluntarily recognize the union. 

“I answer to the biggest trade union in Ireland with 200,000 members,” Greg Ennis, SIPTU’s Manufacturing Division Organiser, told the News. “They are fully behind the workers at Watson Foods. We will implore Glanbia to recognize them, engage and collectively bargain with them.” 

“We support the right of employees to choose to be represented, or not, by a union, and we believe that our employees have the right to have full and complete information before they make that decision,” Martha Kavanagh, Glanbia’s director of corporate affairs, wrote in a statement to the News. “Glanbia is working with the National Labor Relations Board regarding the next steps in this process.” 

Kavanagh declined to answer specific questions concerning Glanbia’s hours, compensation, union-busting practices and relationships with their unionized workforce in Ireland.

Glanbia’s $300,000 solution

On Jan. 13, not long after Glanbia opted against voluntarily recognizing its employees union — despite a strong majority of employees signing cards signaling their support — the company hired two union-busters in order to halt the union drive.

The News has obtained Glanbia’s Letter of Engagement with Action Resources, which lays out the terms of the contract. 

The document stipulates that Glanbia will pay each consultant $3,500 per day, as well as a $75 per day meal allowance, and “all reasonable expenses,” among them airfare, lodging and car rental. Additionally, the union-busters would each be paid $350 per hour for any work done “offsite,” not at one of Glanbia’s two Connecticut factories. 

Since entering into the contract, the union-busters have been present at the facilities for 40 days and have incurred a total of at least $286,000 between them, though the true total is likely higher. 

Jess Petronella, Local 371’s organizing director, reported that the amount the company was spending was more than she had seen. “It’s insane,” Petronella told the News.

“Most employers will spend the money to try to keep the place of work non-union,” Petronella explained. “They would rather spend the money now to keep all the power, than spend it giving workers raises and benefits which will ultimately cost more over time.”

The union-busters have placed a litany of anti-union flyers throughout the building and continued to hold mandatory meetings to dissuade unionization. Petronella also speculated that the union-busters had organized an anti-union committee of workers inside the factory, in order to counter the union drive.

On Feb. 2, Local 371 filed two complaints of Unfair Labor Practices with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Glanbia had violated U.S. labor law by improperly disciplining Weldon for taking an anti-union flier that had fallen off the wall and placing it near the factory’s Human Resources office.

Weldon did not comment on the specific event, but mentioned that tensions in the factory were running high, and that he had heard insults and vitriol aimed at himself and others by workers who opposed the union, including taunts that he was on a coworkers “shit list.”

“I’ve been nervous about talking to [HR],” Weldon lamented. “I don’t know if I can trust that you’ll be taken care of.”

Another ongoing conflict has been attempts by Local 371 to speak at the meetings Glanbia has been requiring workers to attend, held by the union-busters. 

In a statement signed by the Organizing Committee, including Weldon and David Amos, a slitter operator, the workers asked for UFCW representatives to be present at all meetings. 

“What better way to be a shining example of fairness and good management,” the letter said, “than to allow UFCW representatives into the meetings and thereby make it easier for our coworkers to ‘Get the facts before they decide’?” 

In response, Gabe Guilroy, Glanbia’s human resources business partner in Connecticut, referred the workers to an earlier letter from the company, which denied the request and stated that, “we doubt that the UFCW represents an uncoerced and informed majority of our employees in an appropriate bargaining unit.”

“We’re being bombarded every day, every week for over a month,” Weldon told the News. “Because when they weren’t having the captive audience meetings upstairs, union busters were down on the production floor.”

Allies in Ireland

Another party that has been involved in the push for a union at Glanbia has been SIPTU, the Irish union that represents over 900 Glanbia workers in Ireland and has done so for decades.

Greg Ennis, SIPTU’s primary contact with Local 371, told the News that unlike in the United States, Glanbia has had a good relationship with its unionized workforce in Ireland.

“There’s never been an issue,” Ennis reflected. “Really the relationship has been, I would say mutually beneficial, to be honest, even strong.”

With Glanbia declining to recognize their workers in Connecticut, SIPTU has sent two letters to the company’s Ireland headquarters imploring them to recognize the union. They have received support from their National Shopstewards Committee, and are currently circulating a petition around their 900 members working at Glanbia to demonstrate the strength of their worker support.

In a recent letter from Feb. 16, Terry Bryan, an organizer with SIPTU, wrote on behalf of the union that they expected Glanbia to “do the right thing and recognize the just and reasonable demands of its employees to have the UFCW represent them.”

“That’s great. I love it!” Amos said of SIPTU’s involvement. “All the cardholders notice. All the people who sign cards and you let them know. Hey, you got the international union that represents Glanbia in Ireland. They got your back.”

Petronella was similarly enthusiastic about SIPTU’s involvement, noting that they had remained in touch with her about the drive on a nearly weekly basis. 

Ennis shared happiness over the solidarity, but remained frustrated that Glanbia had ignored the unionization push in Connecticut. He offered to serve as an intermediary between the two sides.

So far, Glanbia has ignored both of SIPTU’s letters, which Weldon noted with concern.

“If the company is going to ignore their own union, doesn’t say much for the company that has a contract with the union,” he told the News.

Ennis, observing from across the Atlantic, expressed deep frustration with Glanbia’s decision to employ union-busters. 

“I find it obnoxious that the company will waste resources fighting the union instead of trying to improve the workers’ conditions,” he said.

Looking Ahead

As the ballots have been sent out, the union and their Organizing Committee have ramped up their efforts to secure the necessary 78 votes.

Petronella has made herself available seven days a week, calling, texting and emailing card-signers to confirm their support. Having been barred from the factory, she has also been conducting visits to workers’ houses in order to address their concerns about unionization and answer any questions they may have about the voting process. 

“It’s ultimately up to the workers,” she said. “You know, the workers have to continue to talk to their co-workers inside the plant. Every day. They have to encourage them to vote yes.”

At the same time, Petronella, with the help of the Organizing Committee, is backing a bill at the Connecticut General Assembly that would make it illegal for captive audience meetings to be mandatory in Connecticut in order to stop workers from being coerced into attending anti-union meetings that they do not wish to attend.

Weldon is focused on winning, but also on what winning would mean on March 17, the day after ballots are counted. 

“I’ll be in disbelief,” Weldon said of a potential win. “Then I’m going to be excited. Because we’ll be able to then go to the next step, which is to have the demands meeting with our coworkers, and get down to the business of trying to forge a contract with Glanbia that will be fair. Not just to the company, but to our coworkers.”

Glanbia returned over $160 million in profit in 2020.

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.