Last October, 52 workers at the Sabre Industries manufacturing plant in Sioux City, Iowa, walked off the job after repeated demands for wage increases were reportedly ignored by management. I was covering the Kellogg’s strike in Omaha, Nebraska, for TRNN at the time when I received a Twitter DM from one of the workers at Sabre alerting me to the sudden walkout. Stagnant wages, dwindling employee benefits, and lack of COVID hazard pay were among workers’ chief concerns when the walkout occurred.
Five months later, the workers are in the midst of a contentious union election that has pitted them against volatile management and a team of union-busting consultants called in from out of state to discourage workers from voting “Yes.” Ballots for the union election were mailed out to workers on March 14 and are due back by Monday, April 4. The official counting of ballots will be conducted on April 5.
This is the third time that workers have attempted to organize a union at Sabre Industries in Sioux City in recent years. The last attempt took place in 2018, when workers reached out to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) with the intent of filing a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but they were unable to guarantee enough signatures by rank-and-file workers to cross the threshold that would have triggered an NLRB-conducted election. (As the NLRB website states, “If at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the NLRB will conduct an election.”) Another union election that took place in 2016 at a plant in Hicksville, Ohio, was ultimately unsuccessful. This time, however, workers at the Iowa plant furnished enough signatures to bring an election to the plant and filed their petition with the NLRB in early February.
Sabre Industries is one of the largest manufacturers of steel structures used for telecommunications in the US. The Sioux City plant, which employs about 500 workers, is currently undergoing a $25 million expansion that would bring an estimated 76 new jobs. Additionally, Sioux City City Council and the state of Iowa furnished millions of dollars in TIF and state financing in order to complete the project. The expansion, which is nearing completion, includes a large metal galvanizing facility that would dramatically increase the plant’s manufacturing capacities.
In April 2021, the company was acquired by Blackstone Group Inc., an alternative investment management company based in New York City that, as stated on its website, invests “across the alternative asset classes in private equity, real estate, credit and hedge funds as well as in infrastructure, life sciences, insurance, and growth equity.” In Blackstone’s financial reports for the fourth quarter and full year of 2021, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Stephen A. Schwarzman stated, “Blackstone’s fourth quarter results represented a remarkable finish to a record-breaking year. Our limited partners entrusted us with $270 billion of inflows in 2021, with assets under management rising 42% to $881 billion—our fastest growth rate in over a decade.” This time last year, Chibuike Oguh reported in Reuters that “Schwarzman pocketed at least $610.5 million in 2020 from dividends and compensation, more than any other private equity executive and up 20% from last year despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory filings showed.”
Blackstone’s acquisition of Sabre Industries came at a time when the Biden administration was ramping up its efforts to push plans for a historic investment in national infrastructure through Congress. Infrastructure is a key area of focus for the private equity arm of Blackstone’s investment management operation, though other companies that Blackstone has acquired as part of its Corporate Private Equity portfolio include the dating app Bumble, Ancestry.com, and SERVPRO.
According to a 2021 report prepared by Samir Sonti of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, commissioned and distributed jointly by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund (AFREF), private equity firms utilize a “leveraged buyout” to acquire companies like Sabre Industries. “Central to the private equity business model is the…