‘When is this going to end?’: US factory town devastated by jobs moving overseas

The Viatris plant in West Virginia has been making pharmaceuticals since 1965 – but it’s closing down and laying workers off

Last modified on Sun 20 Jun 2021 03.01 EDT

“Disbelief. Distraught and traumatized.”

Just some of the words United Steelworkers Local 8-957 president Joe Gouzd used to describe how he and hundreds of other workers felt after their 56-year-old pharmaceutical plant in West Virginia was shut down, sending between 1,500 to 2,000 jobs to India and Australia.

The Viatris plant at Chestnut Ridge, just outside Morgantown, has been in operation since 1965, providing well paid jobs in one of America’s poorer states. And the timing of the closure has workers furious.

“This is the last generic pharmaceutical manufacturing giant in the US, and executives are offshoring our jobs to India for more profits. What is this going to do to us if we have another pandemic?” said Gouzd.

It is also causing a political row, with Congress accused of inaction and workers denouncing profits before people.

“When is this going to end, losing American jobs? Every politician you hear, part of their political platform is: jobs, domestic jobs, domestic manufacturing, bringing jobs and manufacturing back to America,” said Gouzd.

The offshoring of jobs has taken on new political weight since Donald Trump was elected. But his record in office was just as poor as his predecessors’.

While the US does not track all jobs lost to offshoring, the labor department does count the number of workers who petition for help under a federal law designed to aid those harmed by trade.

According to Reuters, during the four years of Trump, those petitions covered 202,151 workers whose jobs moved overseas, only slightly less than the 209,735 workers covered under Obama.

Biden has proposed taxing companies that offshore jobs, but it remains to be seen whether he will be successful. Viatris may prove his first big test.

The union is fighting to prevent the plant closure, asking elected officials to repurpose the plant via the Defense Production Act of 1950. It also criticized elected officials in Congress from ignoring their pleas for assistance “for no other reason than stakeholder return on investment dollars,” said Gouzd, who has also worked at the plant for 22 years.

The local union branch represents about 900 workers. “Families are going to be forced to relocate, probably sell their homes, and relocate from West Virginia. Here we’re going to rid ourselves of 2,000 high-paying jobs in north central West Virginia, taking out $150m to $200m out of the local economy from lost income.”

Less than a month after Mylan merged with Pfizer’s Upjohn to form Viatris, the company informed the union of its plans to shut down the plant and send the work abroad, as part of a $1bn cost-cutting restructuring plan. Mylan reported $3.9bn in profits in 2019, and over $1bn in quarterly profits before the merger. The plant is scheduled to end manufacturing on 31 July when the majority of the workforce will be laid off, with closure operations planned to end by 31 March next year.

Carla Shultz, 60, worked at the plant for 13 years and is worried about not being ready to retire, but too old to return to college or be able to find another job with comparable wages and benefits.

Through her job, Shultz was able to receive chemotherapy tablets for her mother; the same medicine would have cost her family $7,000 a month without benefits for her job. During the pandemic, her mother caught coronavirus and is currently hospitalized, on oxygen, and requiring round-the-clock care.

“It added a lot more stress to our already stressful situation caring for family. I also take care of my three grandchildren, two of whom are school-age. But they’ve been home a lot while schools were closed because of Covid,” said Shultz.

“My sister and I take turns caring for my mom. I help in the daytime after I get off work catching a nap when I can and then keeping my midnight shift schedule. It’s not easy keeping up, but we do what we have to do for our families.”

Chad McCormick, recording secretary of USW Local 8-957, has worked at the plant since 2001, but now expects to be forced to find a much lower paying job to remain in the area, where his family has lived for decades.

“I’ve been here for over 20 years. I’ve since gotten married, had three children, and built a house,” said McCormick. “It’s just devastating, and a lot more people than I expected are now looking into relocating.”

The West Virginia legislature passed a bill calling on governor Jim Justice and Joe Biden to save the jobs. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio introduced the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Review Act to conduct a study on the American over-reliance on foreign countries in pharmaceutical industry, but neither West Virginia senator has sponsored the bill.

According to Gouzd, Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito has ignored pleas to work with Biden officials to save the plant, and Democrat Joe Manchin, whose daughter served as Mylan’s chief executive until she retired in 2020, has also ignored their requests to get involved and help.

Viatris cited the plant closure as part of a global restructuring initiative, and said it is exploring alternatives outside the company network.

“The phasing out of manufacturing operations in Morgantown was a decision the company did not take lightly and in no way reflects upon our genuine appreciation for the commitment and work ethic of the employees at Chestnut Ridge,” it said.

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