After an 11-day strike that sent 100 workers to the picket line, union members at the Parks Sausage Co. overwhelmingly approved a new contract yesterday morning, agreeing to trade a temporary 50-cents-an-hour pay cut for a greater say in company operations, a new retirement savings plan and a small raise in two years.
After the 75-10 vote in favor of the pact, about 40 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 27 walked into the plant at noon to help the company cook and process a backlog of 25,000 pounds of sausage.
Both sides said that, while the strike had been painful, it had improved the outlook for the financially troubled sausage maker. The compromise trimmed the Baltimore company's costs while the strike forced executives, who filled in for striking workers, to confront production problems firsthand.
For example, Reginald "Reggie" Haysbert, senior vice president of the company, said he figured out a way to save the company hundreds of dollars a day while he operated a machine that peels inedible casings off of pre-cooked sausage. The machine, he said, was peeling off too much meat.
"I figure we can save $20,000 a year" by spending about $200 to fix the machine, he said.
"I don't like the idea of a work stoppage," said Mr. Haysbert, who is the son of Parks Chairman Raymond V. Haysbert. "But we are a much better company today than we were three weeks ago because of it."
The contract settlement will lead to other important cost reductions for the privately held company, which reported losing $4.5 million over the past two years.
The union agreed to take over the health plan for its 104 members at the plant, which will improve health coverage at no cost to the workers. While the company will continue to pay for the workers' insurance, the arrangement will reduce premiums by $130,000 a year, Mr. Haysbert said.
L The five-month, 50-cents-an-hour pay cut would also save the
company about $50,000, "enough to buy another piece of equipment," he said.
The agreement also allows workers with 35 years of seniority to retire with full benefits. A provision that temporarily permits the company to pay new employees $1 an hour less than older workers could save the company $10,000 a year for every retiree, Mr. Haysbert said.
Currently, Parks workers earn an average of $9.36 an hour, according to the union.
After the vote, held at a union hall across the street from the Park Circle plant, the workers seemed jubilant as they filed out, chanting "Union. Union. Union."
Tom Russow, president of UFCW Local 27, said yesterday that the workers were happy with the compromise and were looking forward to a new joint labor-management committee that would help the company solve its operating and financial problems.
"I think the future is good," he said. "Managers had become too removed from the operations. They got their hands on the sausage and learned a lot," he said.
His biggest concern for the long-term outlook of the company was growing consumer insistence on healthy, low-fat food, which typically does not include sausage.
Parks has been trying to expand beyond its traditional market in the Boston-to-Washington corridor, and is experimenting with chicken-based sausages to try to reverse a sales drop to $20 million, from $28 million in 1990.
"We've got to find a low-fat sausage," Mr. Russow said.
Jamaal Johnson, 21, who makes sausage rolls at the plant, said he figured the strike and wage cut would end up costing him several hundred dollars, but he expects to make up the difference because the company will be offering a new 401(k) savings plan and a 25-cents-an-hour raise in 1995.
"I feel great," said Hubert Burke, 52, a machine operator who hasworked for Parks for 24 years. "I like the company," he said, adding he's grateful he has a job.
He said he voted to strike on May 9 because the company was asking workers for a sacrifice that was too harsh: a 75-cents-an-hour pay cut and a drastic increase in health insurance premiums.
"Hopefully, this will turn us around," he said.