by Brendan Maslauskas Dunna and Elizabeth Meeks
The rural Upstate NY village of Ilion, located just East of Utica, is home to Remington Arms, the oldest gun manufacturer in the nation. The massive, sprawling red brick factory is the beating heart of this small village of around 8,000 people, its various buildings spread out like veins and arteries into the surrounding neighborhoods. Normally, the familiar hum of the machines can be heard for miles, but an eerie silence blanketed the Mohawk Valley at the end of October as nearly 600 union workers woke up one morning, surprised to learn that they were all terminated from their jobs.
The workers at Remington, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) local 717, sprung into action when they heard the news, organizing daily informational pickets and marches in front of the factory.
“There were 585 employees left without severance, without vacation pay, with less than a week’s notice,” said union member Jacquie Sweeney who started work at the plant nine years ago and stayed because of the high pay and camaraderie with her coworkers. “These benefits are legally and contractually owed to us.”
The company is facing a major crisis which led to its second bankruptcy filing in only two years time. Remington filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in July of this year, following a lengthy struggle to remain solvent. In 2018, Remington had attempted to restructure the $620 million dollar debt they’d acquired in the first two years of the Trump presidency, citing the so-called “Trump Slump” in firearm sales.
Complicating the entire situation was a civil suit filed against the company by the families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting. The Remington-manufactured Bushmaster rifle was one of the weapons used by shooter Adam Lanza. Attorneys for that case argue that the rapid sale of the company occurred in part to avoid potential payouts in the lawsuit. The decision to file bankruptcy to avoid paying lawsuit damages or litigation fees is not unheard of.
The company, however, managed to escape bankruptcy in 2018, but not before seeking additional financing, and requesting to the court they be allowed to forgo submitting a complete breakdown of all their debts and assets – a standard requirement in all usual bankruptcy proceedings. In the two years since their first brush with bankruptcy, Remington has continued to struggle to keep their books in the black, despite the significant rebound of demand for firearms and a substantially more receptive market.
The coronavirus pandemic, as well as the increased tensions nationwide with law enforcement, has resulted in a blockbuster year for civil unrest and economic hardship – both of which have led to exponential sales in the firearms industry. The year 2020 should have been Remington’s best year yet, but by only the 2nd quarter, executives were already seeking a rescue buyout; an offer it seemed nobody wanted. This time, there were no ‘angel investors’ willing to lend the funds that Remington lacked nor forgive the debts owed.
On September 24th, 2020, Remington issued a written memo advising workers that the company was facing “material shortages” which were a result from the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.
“As such, [you may be] contacted by your supervisor
to inform you that after the end of your shift today,
you will not be required to report to work. Instead, you
will be paid at your regular rate of pay through Sept. 29th.”
The next time the furloughed workers heard from Remington was the morning of October 12th, when they received a phone call with a pre-recorded message informing them they were terminated as employees of Remington effective immediately, and listed the benefits they would no longer be entitled to: health insurance, life insurance, severance pay, worker’s compensation, accrued PTO, and pensions.
Employees have struggled to obtain any information about the auction and sale of Remington’s assets, and ultimately, their livelihoods. One laid-off Lathe Machinist shared that he and many of his colleagues had only learned of the sale closing on the evening news. “Anything we know we have to find ourselves” he said, “but there’s not much to find.” Workers have also struggled to get back into the plant, even to get their belongings.
At the end of September, a judge ruled Remington could sell all of its assets, including multiple plants and production lines outside of Ilion. Different bidders stepped forward to parcel out the spoils, leaving Remington a shell of its former self. The Ilion plant was eventually bought alongside a handgun barrel factory in Tennessee by Roundhill Group and partner Richmond Italia who was personally approached by Remington CEO Ken D’Arcy to buy the Ilion plant.
The two plants were bought for $13 million, a price that shocked many of the workers who contend the value of both plants is much higher. Talk is widespread on the picket line that former corporate heads and chief individual lenders made immense profits during the sale and asset liquidation while all the union members are fighting for necessities for basic survival.
Although the mass termination blindsided many workers, more than a few had been bracing for something like this for some time. Fran Madore worked at Remington since 1975 but retired five years ago. He became active in his union shortly after getting hired and has served multiple positions, including president of the local. Even in retirement he still remains active in his union and was present at every recent picket.
“The writing has been on the wall for the last couple of years with how the company was trying to run the plant into the ground,” Madore said. “They were headed down the wrong road and this bankruptcy was a product of it.”
While the bankruptcy, auction, and final sale of Remington Outdoor Company has received intense media attention both nationally, and locally, the people it impacts the most seem to remain an afterthought. Little mention of the disastrous effects a lay-off of this magnitude has on workers’ ability to survive the current global pandemic; people who have lost not only their income but also their health and life insurance policies.
The grim reality of living without any health insurance during a pandemic which has thus far claimed the lives of nearly 280,000 people in the US is a primary concern for many. “I put my time in there. They should give me what I’m owed. My dad has diabetes; my family has health issues. Not having health insurance is a big issue,” said union member Jennifer Angle. The shortfalls of employer-backed health insurance have become painfully transparent to 100s of workers now without it.
Family members, local business owners, neighbors, seemingly everyone in Ilion and most of the surrounding towns have some direct connection to the workers at Remington. A collective unease, anxiety, and panic is now ubiquitous in the rolling hills of the Mohawk Valley. Jacquie Sweeney went around Ilion to drum up support for the union from local business owners. “They all offered their support and some of them cried. Their businesses were built up around Remington.” Sweeney repeated a saying often heard in town: “Remington is ilion and ilion is Remington,” adding that “this can be potentially catastrophic.”
Union members have posited online that they feel as though the company is ‘hiding something,’ a sentiment not without merit considering Remington’s decades-long pattern of unscrupulous financial dealings, in addition to their frequent, blatant flouting of fair labor laws. The NLRB has a lengthy list of violations from the company dating back years.
Jacquie Sweeney’s condemnation of Remington’s recent actions is not the only criticism she laid bare: she also feels the actions taken by management fit into a longer pattern of union busting from the company – and she is not alone in this assertion. During the 1970s Remington employed over 3,000 workers. But that number has changed significantly. UMWA member Jennifer Angle started working at Remington seven years ago, and like many workers, her family worked at Remington for multiple generations. She is the third generation of her family to not only work at the plant but to also be active in the union. “When I started there were 1200 people who worked there but it’s been dwindling down,” she said.
While she and others mentioned that the pandemic put a major strain on production, especially on the company’s ability to get parts from other manufactures, jobs from the Ilion plant were hemorrhaging for years. “You could just tell the jobs were just getting shipped out. This was happening before the virus,” said Angle. A major change came when a new plant was set up in Huntsville, Alabama in 2014.
“Alabama is what cut the anchor finally,” said Fran MAdore. “It was a nightmare from day one. It was never going to succeed ever because they can’t replace the workforce up here.”
Municipal and state governments offered a lucrative deal and multiple incentives to Remington and the company in turn promised to hire 2,000 workers over ten years who would typically get paid a $42,500 salary.
And while there is some disagreement from the members of UMWA local 717 over whether opening a plant in Huntsville and in a number of other Southern cities and towns was an explicit strategy on the part of the company to break the union, elements of that do exist.
This move fits into an all too common pattern of outsourcing which led to the mass de-industrialization of Northern cities and shifting production to right-to-work states, largely in the South, or to other countries. This practice enables companies to take advantage of environments more hostile to unions.
Fran Madore said that there were rumors of moving production south since at least the time he started working at Remington in the 1970s. When the plant finally did open in Huntsville, he approached the CEO. “I told him at the time this was never going to work. I said I guarantee you it will never work because you are never going to find people in Alabama who are going to work like we do in Ilion.”
The union difference, both in the experience and skills that come with the workers in Ilion, but also in the difference in pay and benefits were stark. Remington did not live up to its promises in Alabama in terms of the number of workers hired, job security or even pay. The starting pay for many of the workers was $9.20 an hour compared to over $20 an hour in the Ilion plant.
Union members are going to continue to fight. A flurry of charges have already been filed with the NLRB, elected politicians have stepped into the fray on behalf of the union, and workers are planning future pickets and other actions. Many remain hopeful that they will one day be back to work under the new owner Richard Italia who has promised that Remington, or “New Remington” as workers are apt to call it, will continue to manufacture firearms and hire 100s of workers. The workers at least are ready.
“We could be up and running in less than a week’s time,” said Fran Madore with an air of confidence. “But they have not sat down with the union to try and honor the contract. If this guy’s got in his head that he can run this place without a union or union contract, I doubt like hell that people are going to go back for 15 or 18 dollars an hour or go in for anything less they’re making now,” he said.
The pickets have grown with each passing day, attracting neighbors, activists and union members from local NYSUT teachers unions, the UFCW and CWA. Even workers from a railroad workers union and the famed Wobblies showed up, vowing to bring out more members and stay for the long haul. Many have pledged to set up a mutual aid fund to help workers in need during the holidays.
When asked what they plan to do in the coming months and what they hope for, the response from UMWA members was unanimous “People are willing to fight – that’s what belonging to a union does,” said Fran Madore.
Jacquie Sweeny echoed this sentiment: “We don’t plan on giving up any time soon. We’ll continue to fight.”