United Food and Commercial Workers International Local 297 Union members voted and approved Wednesday a severance package for hourly employees of Lenoir City's Yale Locks & Hardware.
The move is one of many steps toward permanently closing the local plant.
As part of the package, employees will receive one week's pay and insurance benefits for each year of service. Employees will have a one-month waiting period before receiving the insurance but will get the compensation on their last day of work.
Joe Williams, president of the local UFCW, said the final package came after months of negotiations between the union and Yale parent company Assa Abloy.
"It was a decently rich package worth over $3 million in just wages. That's not including the price for the extra health benefits. So, it was a decently rich severance package, and it's a bittersweet situation, but I believe it's the best for our membership to accept it," Williams said.
Assa Abloy initially offered 16 hours of pay for each year of service. Both parties reached an agreement May 24, Williams said.
Of the 145 Yale union members, 130 voted Wednesday with 118 in favor of accepting the package. "It was the highest turnout of any election I have seen," Williams said. Several union members cheered and applauded when the final vote was announced.
For husband and wife Vernon and Janet Rogers, the plant closure is a devastating blow, but they felt they had no option but to support the deal.
"I don't think anybody was really satisfied with what was offered, but you either take it or you don't," Janet Rogers, who has worked with the company for 23 years, said. "We're not negotiating a contract, where you have more bargaining power."
"The jobs are gone. Period," employee Stacy Arthur added.
For the Rogers, losing both sources of income is difficult.
"It felt like the wind was knocked out of you," Janet said.
"(I felt) sick, disgusted. I was ready to get the crap out of there. They told us they were going to pay us the rest of the day," Vernon said. "I told everybody go home." He has been with Yale for 36 years.
"People there had just bought brand-new vehicles, bought houses, bought cars, bought campers. Then next thing you know you lose your job," he said. "You've got people down there, some of them 50 years. Some have so many months before they can retire.
"We were told we could go up there (to the Assa Abloy facility in Connecticut) and put in an application, but it didn't mean we would get hired ...," Vernon added.
The local union and company negotiated a new five-year agreement last year that would have gone through 2016. With Wednesday's vote, the union forfeited its seniority system, "where the company compensated the associates that had the seniority to maybe stay later," Williams said.
"I've been there 35 years. The hard part to accept is it's not based on a financial decision. It's not based on anybody's work ethic. The company was profitable here in Lenoir City, and that makes it tougher to accept when it is basically a consolidation issue. They've got three or four lock companies, and they are in the process of consolidating them into one location," Williams said.
The plant is scheduled to close in five phases. The first department will shutter in August, and the last will leave at the end of March 2013.
"That's when the plant will actually close its doors to hourly people. After that, there will be a few salary folks until the end of the year, and then it will close," Williams said.
By law, Assa Abloy must abide by the clauses in the severance package. The company could back away from the deal, but Williams believes it is "highly unlikely."
"If they decide to reopen the Assa Abloy company, which they own several lock companies, if they come back and decide to reopen then they will renegotiate with the union," he said.
The next step for the employees?
"Things will be normal for a couple more weeks, and then they'll start the packing up process for the one department," Williams said.