Union questions rehiring process at Chattanooga’s Mueller Co.

7 Black workers not recalled after layoffs

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/  Community organizer Marie Mott, front, and members of United Steelworkers Local 3115 speak during a news conference in front of the Mueller Co. plant on Tuesday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Community organizer Marie Mott, front, and members of United Steelworkers Local 3115 speak during a news conference in front of the Mueller Co. plant on Tuesday.

Antonio Espey landed the best-paying job he ever had last year when he was hired as an assembly worker at the Mueller Co. plant in Chattanooga.

But as business slowed for the water valve manufacturer this year, Espey was among about 90 workers furloughed. He is now among seven Black hourly workers at Mueller not called back to work last month due to what they called an improper change in the company's background checks for employment.

Espey said his 29-year-old criminal record was not a problem for Mueller when he was hired in the summer of 2022, but now it apparently is preventing him and some other workers with crimes in their past from going back to work.

"Their application says anything that is over seven years doesn't matter, so they are going outside of their own guidelines," Espey said at a news conference Tuesday outside of the Mueller plant in East Chattanooga. "I don't have to answer to a 29-year-old record."

(READ MORE: Mueller opens Chattanooga technology center)

The Chattanooga Mueller plant, which was built in 1965, makes water valves and valve components. Mueller's water division also operates production plants in Cleveland and Kimball, Tennessee; Albertville, Alabama; Decatur, Illinois; Brownsville, Texas; and Ontario, Canada.

The United Steelworkers Local 3115 approved a new contract with Mueller last year but in January, members of International Association of Machinists Local 3115 voted to strike the Mueller plant in Chattanooga for the first time in 46 years. After a week-long walkout, the machinists voted in late January to ratify a new four-year contract with Mueller.

Bacon said background checks of employees were not even discussed during the contract talks, but he said the rules appear to have changed in a way that violates the terms of the contract. The union could legally challenge the change but only after it exhausts its grievance procedure.

Terence Dillard, who has worked at Mueller for more than two years, is another one of those who was recalled to work in mid-October but was denied his old job back during the background check.

"Nothing has changed for me, and they can't give me a solid reason why I can't go back to work," he said. "I still haven't received any information as to why I lost my job and why I am in the shape I'm in."

Dillard, who started work at Mueller making about $21 an hour, said he has struggled to make up for his lost income.

"It's going to be a rough Christmas," he said.

(READ MORE: Mueller opens plant in Kimball, Tennessee)

Marie Mott, a community activist, organized a news conference outside the plant Tuesday to try to rally public support for the displaced workers.

"The lives of many families are hanging in the balance because of what is happening here at Mueller," Mott told reporters Tuesday. "We want our local community to hold this corporation accountable for how it is treating its workers and ensuring that there are fair practices when it comes to collective bargaining agreements."

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.

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