Working In These Times
Wis. Firm’s Move to Replace Striking Workers Sparks Statewide Solidarity
A new battle in Wisconsin's labor wars, this time in private sector
On December 7, exactly 70 years later after "the day that will live in infamy,” the Manitowoc Company dropped a surprise of its own: the manufacturer announced it will replace 200 striking members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) Lodge 516 in Manitowoc, Wis., a quiet, pleasant town of about 34,000 located on Lake Michigan.
“This is a Scott Walker-style attack on workers,” declared state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale, referring to the Wisconsin governor's assault on public-employee union rights early this year. "It’s not about wages or benefits. It’s about management wanting total power.”
The use of “scab” replacement workers has been relatively rare over the last 40 years in Wisconsin, a state with a strong union history. But in almost every instance—during the nine-year Kohler strike in nearby Sheboygan in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1975 Meatcutters strike in Milwaukee, the 1987 strike at the Patrick Cudahy plant just south of Milwaukee, and the 1991 Rainfair strike in Racine—the introduction of replacement workers triggered long and bitterly divisive struggles that shook the communities for prolonged periods.
When workers' jobs are threatened by bringing in replacements for simply exercising their right to strike—an option workers would prefer to avoid—the intensity of the conflict inevitably mushrooms. If Manitowoc Co. remains steadfast in its plans, the plan to replace strikers will make the community a national symbol of the battle for fundamental labor rights.
Determined to bring the weight of the Wisconsin labor movement into the battle early on, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO is planning a mass rally in support of the Manitowoc Machinists on Saturday, December 10, said the AFL-CIO's Bloomingdale.
The rally will feature expressions of support from local clergy and other unions at the Manitowoc Co. including the Boilermakers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Office and Professional Employees International Union. There will also be a considerable presence of other unions and the Occupy protesters from across the state.
LAST-MINUTE DEMAND BY MANAGEMENT DISRUPTS BARGAINING
Negotiations over a new contract to replace the one that expired October 31 had been proceeding relatively well until Manitowoc Co. unveiled a last-minute proposal to take away the “union shop” provision in the contract. With the corporation unwilling to budge, the IAM voted 180-2 to strike. The walkout began November 15.
“The union serves as the workers’ democratic voice in the shop, and the Manitowoc Co. is trying to divide and weaken that voice, just as Gov. Walker and major corporations want to silence the voice of labor in Wisconsin and continue trying to crush the middle class,” Bloomingdale told In These Times.
“While there was agreement on many issues, the company proposed new language toward the end of the negotiations that was absolutely unacceptable,” IAM District 10 business representative Benito Elizondo said. “The company proposed eliminating long-standing contract language requiring any employee who benefits from negotiated wages and benefits to become a member of the union that negotiated those benefits.”
“This is the private-sector equivalent of what Republican Governor Scott Walker imposed on Wisconsin's public-sector employees, “ IAM Lodge 516 stated on its website.
The Manitowoc Co. has even echoed Walker’s call for annual elections for re-certification of the IAM, Elizondo told the Capital Times of Madison:
"It's nothing but union busting," says Elizondo. ... Elizondo says the company has also talked about requiring a union recertification vote every year. Walker included a similar requirement for public unions in his budget legislation.
"I think all of this is being driven by what has happened at the state level," says Elizondo. "They went after the public worker unions first and now the private sector is following their lead."
UNION SHOP PREVENTS MANAGEMENT FROM DIVIDING WORKERS
“The existence of the union shop is fundamental to labor unions democratically serving as the voice of all workers in a workplace,” Bloomingdale says. “All workers belong so that management cannot play non-members off against members, and the union can truly represent the entire workforce.“
In the low-wage, mostly Southern states where the “union shop” is banned, unions are nonetheless legally obligated to fully represent workers who do not pay dues. This creates an incentive for workers to reap the benefits of union efforts while appeasing management. Meanwhile, managers are able to gradually erode union strength by selectively hiring new workers who are anti-union.
“The aim of the Manitowoc Company, like Gov. Walker, is to weaken the voice of organized labor which has spoken up for all workers and built the middle class," Bloomingdale insists.
The company did not set the stage for a major war with labor because of economic pressures. Its earnings grew in the third quarter of 2011, as “The Manitowoc Company reported sales of $935 million in its Foodservice and Cranes operating groups for the third quarter, including a 20.7 percent increase in cranes' sales."
For his labors in 2010, Manitowoc Co. President and CEO Glen E. Tellock reinforced his status as a member of America's top 1%, receiving $4,905,385 in total compensation. The median US worker made $33,840 in 2010.
For Buelow Vetter Buikema Olson & Vliet, the newly-formed law firm which Manitowoc has retained, the strike can serve to establish its name as a hard-nosed anti-union outfit in a time of resurgent worker militancy. As described in a Business Journal of Milwaukee headline outlining the law firm's recent formation, "Timing good for labor law firm."
But for the striking Machinists, a pre-Christmas strike they sought to avoid is hardly "good timing." Nor is the Manitowoc community likely to be delighted by an intense and bitter conflict sweeping the community during the holiday season.
However, for the striking workers and the broader labor movement, the battle is not one that they can afford to walk away from.
“This battle forced on workers by Manitowoc Company is another reminder that unions are essential to a truly democratic society, as a firewall against a society driven by unbridled greed,” Bloomingdale says. “We are standing up for the middle class and the 99%.”