Published August 5th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
INDEPENDENCE, Missouri – For Diana Dierking, Lake City Army Ammunition Plant is a family tradition.
She started at the plant 19 years ago, following in the footsteps of her mother, who worked at the Lake City facility for almost 40 years. Dierking met her husband there. She works with her sister, her brother-in-law, uncle, cousin – the list goes on.
Now, Dierking fears for the future of her family as rumors of layoffs ricochet through the plant.
Lake City Army Ammunition Plant is the only government-owned plant producing small caliber ammunition, making it the primary source for the bullets that fought recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the plant, which can produce up to 1.6 billion bullets a year, is in the cross hairs of a proposed 30% to 50% reduction in U.S. Army spending on small caliber ammunition in the upcoming fiscal year.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) sent a letter on July 20 urging House and Senate appropriators to reconsider the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget for the U.S. Army. The focus of the letter was to protect the jobs at the Lake City plant.
The letter, written by IAM International President, Robert Martinez Jr., claimed 500-600 employees at the Lake City facility would lose their jobs as a result of the decrease in ammunition demand from the Army.
The union and the plant’s operating contractor, Olin Winchester, have some job security mechanisms in place for employees, but it’s unlikely that such a significant blow to production would leave employees unscathed.
Dierking, her family members and the 1,800 or so employees at Lake City plant are mostly long-term employees with specialized skills that would be difficult to replace.
The Lake City facility has been in operation since before the man from Independence, Harry S. Truman, became president. As a senator from Missouri, Truman was instrumental in bringing the plant (and all of its employment opportunities) to Independence in late 1940. During World War II, employment at the plant soared to about 21,000 people.
About 80 years later, the plant – more like a city within a city – sprawls across almost 4,000 acres and continues to be the top supplier of small ammunition for the Department of Defense. It also is one of only two NATO small ammunition test centers in the world, so a lot of the facility is dedicated to testing munitions.
Scott Brown, business representative for the local IAM Lodge 778, said many of the positions at the plant are entry level, but can take a significant amount of time to train for and become proficient in.
Some of the machines in the facility date back to the plant’s inception, while others are more modern. Regardless, Brown said employees have to learn how to operate the machines, adjust to the quirks and be able to pass that knowledge down to an incoming employee.
“They’re highly skilled people,” Brown said. “It’s hard to just walk in there and know how to run some of these machines. To lose that amount of people potentially can be devastating for the economy, for the company and just for people in general.”
Proper knowledge of the equipment is important to maintain safety in manufacturing bullets. Any imperfections in the ammunition can be very dangerous if loaded in a firearm.
“When you get people into those areas, you want to maintain them,” Brown said. “There’s a safety aspect there.”
For the first 17 years of his tenure, Ryan Waddell worked in one of the plant’s priming departments and just last year transitioned to be a natural gas technician.
Priming is a highly specialized and dangerous job in a munitions plant. The primer is essentially a cap, filled with a small amount of explosives that once struck by the firearm, will ignite the propellent powder in the cartridge and allow the bullet to fire.
Essentially, it’s the first reaction in a fired bullet, so if the primer isn’t right, the rest of the cartridge can’t fire properly.
In a priming department, Waddell was a mechanic on a high speed production line. Knowing the machine inside and out was imperative to get it up and running when it broke down.
“You run your machine and your line, until it breaks and then it’s up to you to fix it,” Waddell said.
Other important roles on the line could be the inspection of components as they roll past on the line. Seasoned employees are able to spot imperfections easily, from years of being in the position, and prevent a bad bullet from ever being loaded.
Justine Barati, the director of public and congressional affairs for the Joint Munitions Command, said employees working on these lines are highly skilled at what they do.
“These are skilled artisans that are doing important work for the warfighter,” Barati said.
Waddell started at the Lake City facility as it was ramping up production following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, he’s seen three presidents sworn in, and with each one, he said, change is expected at the plant.
Waddell said a construction worker has to be wary of the weather, just as an ammunition plant has to understand that funding will change with new administrations.
“You could have different people get in (to office) and view things differently, and cut budgets,” Waddell said. “It’s just kind of a risk you take.”
President Joe Biden announced in April he would follow actions started by the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Last week, the president announced a similar end to American combat in Iraq.
Naturally, when the military withdraws from active combat zones, fewer rounds of ammunition should be needed.
In the short term, the military’s reduction in ammunition demand may seem like a welcome peace dividend. But Brown said there’s a fear in it too because if the nation were to go into combat, the ability to produce enough of this specific ammunition could be lost with the plant’s layoffs.
“If you lose the amount of people that you’re talking about, and there was a conflict or there was a need for the military to ramp production back up, would we be able to respond to that?” Brown hypothesized. “(If) you lose 400 or 500 people, it could take 7, 9, 10 years to gain that knowledge back.”
Because the facility is contractor operated, only about 30 employees at the plant are Department of the Army civilians. The rest are employed by Olin Winchester, the current contractor of the plant.
Barati said because there are so few Army positions at the plant, and they are almost all upper management positions, those jobs wouldn’t be much affected by budget cuts.
A spokesperson for Olin Winchester did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the situation and its planned response to the proposed budget.
According to Brown, some Olin Winchester employees could be absorbed into different areas of the plant rather than be laid off, or perhaps the company will offer voluntary layoffs, as Orbital ATK offered its employees in 2013.
“Bottom line is, if production gets cut to what we think it will get cut to, it would almost be inevitable that they would have to do some sort of layoff,” Brown said.
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), whose congressional district includes the Lake City plant, has been in regular contact with Olin Winchester about the issue.
“These proposed cuts would negatively impact military readiness and would be a disaster for the entire Kansas City area, potentially costing hundreds of good-paying jobs,” Graves wrote in an emailed statement.
Graves, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he is fighting to protect these jobs and the local economy.
“I am working to ensure the Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act reverses these cuts and I will continue working to protect these jobs,” Graves said in his statement.
Lake City plant employees have been through layoffs and administration changes in the past, but that doesn’t mean employees are any less uneasy about their futures at the plant.
Waddell said finding out about the budget cuts for the upcoming fiscal year has been a blow to many of the current employees.
“It’s kind of like a shock to their system,” Waddell said. “A lot of people don’t know what to do. They’ve done this job (for) so long.”
Newer employees probably would bounce back easily and find new jobs in a tight labor market. But for those who have been at the plant for most of their professional careers, Waddell said the idea of finding a new field of work is distressing.
“They’re just wondering if their jobs are going to be cut, if they’re going to get let go, or if they’re maybe next,” Waddell said.
Waddell noted that in past years, when ammunition orders from the Army were short, commercial ammunition orders “filled in a lot of the gaps for lack of production or whatever else it may be at the time.”
In theory, at least, that would seem to be an appealing option for Lake City. Demand for commercial ammunition has been soaring, fueled in part by mounting fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and growing racial and political tensions in the country.
Commercial ammunition purchases surged 139% during the first half of 2020, according to retailer surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Ammo sales surged even more than the 95% increase in firearm sales. Moreover, Grand View Research estimates that the global ammunition market will grow from $21.4 billion in 2020 to $28.4 billion in 2028.
But now, with Olin Winchester, Waddell said the Lake City plant no longer produces the same amount of commercial ammunition that it did for previous contractors, Alliant Techsystems, Northrop Grumman and Orbital ATK. Today, the Lake City plant only manufactures one of the common types of commercially bought ammunition. The other calibers manufactured at the plant are mostly used for military purposes, which makes it difficult for the plant to fully transition to commercial sales.
And while the Lake City facility has some limited commercial sales, Winchester Ammunition already has two additional plants producing commercial ammunition in Mississippi and Illinois.
A spokesperson for the Joint Program Executive Office of Armaments and Ammunition said in an email that the production of ammunition for foreign military sales and commercial purposes should be considered by Lake City as ways to supplement production.
It’s just one more factor on the minds of employees.
Dierking is worried for her family and longtime friends at the plant, and the impact of layoffs on the surrounding communities where most employees live. The response from her circle: buckle down.
“Most of the time you’re going to lose people that you’ve had friendships with, (that) you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s kind of like a family,” Dierking said. “So you just pray and hope that a layoff won’t happen.”
Dierking said employees continued working through the pandemic and they want to continue working through these budget cuts, not only to make a living, but because of their pride in serving the warfighter.
“It’s a great place to work,” Dierking said. “I’ve lasted all these years and I love working and making ammo and hopefully can continue.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.