Union posts email exchange with Merck CEO over plant dangers from job cuts

Merck CEO Ken Frazier

Merck & Co.'s ($MRK) plant in Pennsylvania has been impacted by the drugmaker's drastic job cuts in the last 5 years, losing hundreds of manufacturing jobs. Now, in an email exchange made public by one of the unions there, a labor official has lashed out at CEO Ken Frazier, saying workers are now forced to work 16-hours shifts, the fatigue from which puts themselves and others in danger.

An email exchange between Frazier and United Steelworkers Union local president Dan Bangert was posted on the local's website and reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The union represents about 1,800 of the approximately 9,700 Merck employees in the area, the newspaper said. The West Port, PA, plant where Bangert works lost 500 jobs in late 2013. In the emails, Bangert lays out that workers run the risk of losing their job if they don't take on extra shifts. Frazier responds that management and HR will work with the union to address its concerns.

The initial email that Bangert, a 29-year Merck veteran, fired off was in response to a company decision to reward employees an extra day off at the Labor Day Weekend for their hard work, a perk that was not extended to contract employees. It led Bangert to say that not only do union employees work extremely hard, but by being made to work extra shifts, they can be worn out and dangerous. "I dread but expect the day when someone forced to work a double shift of work (16 hours) gets in their car after work, drives home and falls asleep at the wheel, hurting themselves, someone else or someone else's child."

Another worker, who spoke anonymously to the newspaper, says that fatigue can be especially problematic for workers in the vaccine plant where viruses are handled. "We're making medicine, not coat hangers," the newspaper quoted him as saying.  

The CEO responded personally to the union official explaining that collective bargaining agreements make it hard sometimes to offer the same perks to all employees. He assured Bangert that union workers are appreciated. Frazier said manufacturing brass and HR would work with local site management to deal with union concerns. "Merck goes to great lengths to protect the safety and well-being of our employees," Frazier wrote.

The public eruption came even as the pharma giant recently reported that it had slashed about 36,000 jobs since its 2009 merger with Schering-Plough. The drugmaker has gone through multiple restructurings and has remade itself in the face of patent losses on blockbusters like Singulair and Nasonex. In the last quarter, through cost cutting and some unexpected revenues jumps, the Whitehouse Station, NJ-based drugmaker beat Wall Street forecasts and raised its year-end financial projection.

While the financial outlook for the drugmaker is looking up, it does not mean all of the job cuts are over. In fact, in a recent SEC filing, Merck said that about 2,600 more jobs would be on the line from July 1 through the end of 2016, and most of those would be manufacturing jobs. About 150 of those cuts happened last month, when Merck sold a plant in Italy to an Italian company that pledged to keep the workers. It also has sold off two plants in Puerto Rico, where jobs were also saved, and another in France.

- read the Inquirer story
- here's the union posting

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