Amid a slight political flurry spurred by a lawmaker’s last-ditch missive, time ran out Saturday for more than 1,200 workers at the former Mylan pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown.
Viatris, the company formed from the 2019 merger of Mylan and Upjohn, is shuttering the factory that churned out pharmaceuticals for generations after Milan “Mike” Puskar and Don Panoz co-founded the company 60 years ago.
The idled plant remains part of the country’s emergency critical infrastructure, the director of the little-known federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency advised in a letter Friday. The factory received that designation in the early days of the pandemic and one of its unionized workers’ chief political backers, state Delegate Barbara Fleishauer, D-Monongalia, hoped to use the label to somehow save workers’ jobs.
Gov. Jim Justice and Rep. David McKinley, a Wheeling Republican representing West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, and both of the state’s U.S. senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, sent similar letters.
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Director Jen Easterly’s response Friday did not hit the mark for which Fleishauer and the others aimed. It referenced the plant but said nothing about the workers.
“We assure you that the critical infrastructure designation for critical manufacturing facilities, such as the Viatris manufacturing facility in Morgantown, WV mentioned in your letter, will remain in place,” Easterly wrote.
Workers have been left wondering why so little mind has been paid to a closure that one local economist found would trigger the ripple effect of 4,642 total lost jobs and $403 million in lost wages from the Monongalia County economy over the course of the coming year.
“This problem is not getting the attention it deserves,” 22-year plant veteran and Local 8-957 President Joe Gouzd has said.
Hopes for a repurposing of the site so far have failed to come to fruition, though McKinley spokesman Chris Berardi said his office had “connected four companies or investors interested in the plant with Viatris and state and local officials.”
“Some of those conversations have progressed between the parties,” Berardi said, “though we are no longer privy to the talks.”
In recent months, Gouzd said, only Delegates Danielle Walker, D-Monogalia, and Fleischauer have had workers’ backs.
Gouzd and other union workers have been frustrated in efforts to draw attention to their plight, so much so that they hit the road in May to drum up notice.
On May 12, two days after the group made a stop in Charleston, Capito’s campaign committee cashed a $2,500 check from Viatris’ political action committee, ViaPAC, according to a Federal Election Commission filing released earlier this month. ViaPAC sent the contribution April 27, according to records.
On May 20, ViaPAC sent a $1,000 payment to McKinley’s campaign. He represents the district where the Viatris plant operates. McKinley’s campaign deposited the check June 9, according to filings. His campaign has hauled in almost $40,000 from a Mylan or Viatris PAC since 2011, including $10,000 during the 2020 election cycle.
ViaPAC is not listed in Manchin’s campaign filings. That’s because on Nov. 16, 2020 — the same day as the Mylan-Upjohn merger — Mylan’s political action committee, MYPAC, filed a request with the elections commission to change its name. Viatris has never directly donated to Manchin’s campaign, but Mylan gave $81,000 to his 2018 Senate campaign, $57,000 to his 2012 campaign and $10,000 for his 2010 Senate race for a total of $148,000. Mylan historically has been a top Manchin campaign donor.
Heather Bresch, Manchin’s daughter and the former Mylan CEO, retired last year with a projected $37.6 million payout from the merger.
Marybeth Beller, an associate professor of political science at Marshall University, said there are a few certainties when it comes to direct campaign contributions and spending. Among them are the fact that direct contributions play a minimal role in the actions of politicians.
If a large corporation wants to sway a powerful politician, it wouldn’t act through traditional campaign donations, which can be tracked, Beller said. It would act through a so-called Super PAC, which can raise unlimited sums from undisclosed corporations and private individuals.
“Super PACs really have the greatest amount of influence right now in terms of being able to give research advice to candidates and officeholders on how to vote, how to mobilize voters and how to redistribute funds,” Beller said.
McKinley, Manchin and Capito insist they are all in the corner of Viatris workers.
Referring to recent campaign donations, Capito said during a press conference last week, Viatris is “a big company and obviously supports my policies, so I don’t have a problem with [accepting the contribution].”
Writing in an email Friday, Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon said, “to suggest that Senator Manchin is motivated by anything other than what is best for working West Virginians is categorically false.”
“For months, Senator Manchin has engaged in conversations with Viatris, Monongalia County, the Morgantown Area Partnership and local and state leaders to find a solution that protects every single job. He remains hopeful there will be a positive outcome in the near future.”
What are the chances?
State leaders could have used this moment to bring the WV WORKFORCE Dislocated Worker Unit to its full strength, said Sam Brown Petsonk, a Beckley labor attorney and former Democratic candidate for attorney general.
Companies issue Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications, known as a WARN Notices, at least 60 days before a large layoff. During that time, a fully funded state dislocated worker unit would work hand-in-hand with the federal Department of Labor to reduce the impact, possibly by finding other plant buyers based on equipment and skills of the workforce.
This isn’t a Democrat or a Republican problem, Petsonk said. It’s about decades of inattention by state leaders to the work of labor law and federal protections that could have saved many families from the effect of steel and coal plant layoffs. Without help, workers are left navigating the unemployment system on their own instead of being trained for their next job while still on their old job.
“We’ve never built the capacity to do that, and this is a glaring example of our failure in that regard,” Petsonk said.
The Steel Valley Authority in Pennsylvania, an organized state initiative designed to stabilize labor communities during plant closures or layoffs, should have served as a model for West Virginia’s leaders, Petsonk said. Viatris gave a more than six-months heads-up that it would be abandoning the Chestnut Ridge Road plant in Morgantown. But the time passed and no help came for workers.
Petsonk suggested West Virginia work toward developing a similar authority to help destabilized labor communities. He also said elected officials should have better publicly supported Viatris workers during the plant’s waning days. He pointed to former Gov. Jay Rockefeller’s two-years-long fight to create the largest employee ownership plan in the country after massive layoffs at Weirton Steel in the 1980s. Union employees bought the mill, put their own people on the financial books and extended the plant’s life.
“It was the workers who had the power, together with good leadership from Gov. Rockefeller [that made the situation a success],” Petsonk said. “Those are the two fundamental ingredients.”
Throwing up prayers
Fleishauer wasn’t the only one throwing Hail Mary passes as the Viatris plant’s days wound down.
A national progressive political organization delivered a letter July 21 to President Joe Biden, calling on him to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 to keep the plant open.
The White House has not responded publicly to the closure or the group’s letter. Nor did it respond to a request for comment for a recent Gazette-Mail story and or for this one.
Local union officials hoped Biden, who was endorsed by their international Steelworkers union, would one day overstep West Virginia’s senators and employ their members as federal workers.
They hoped he would make good on his campaign promises, which included keeping high-paying, union labor jobs in the U.S., especially in critical manufacturing sectors. Members thought they made a good pitch for themselves as domestic assets after Mylan’s globally-unrivaled mass production of hydroxychloroquine in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members traveled by bus to Charleston in early June to take up Justice on his campaign promise that he could get any Fortune 500 CEO on the phone whenever he liked. Justice said Viatris had been “difficult to work with” and the state was seeking potential buyers, but the company wasn’t interested in selling.
Laid-off union workers from the Viatris plant will receive two weeks of pay, benefits and insurance for every year they worked for the company.
Those benefits were supposed to last until March 2023 — the end date of the union contract.