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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Mar 9, 2010, 12:18 pm

Facing Mass Lay-Offs, Whirlpool Workers Choose to Fight Company

BY Joseph Varga

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Indiana unionists hold rally, file federal lawsuit to challenge outsourcing and management's "unfair practice"

When members of an electrical workers union in Evansville, Ind., decided to stir things up and fight the closing of the Whirlpool plant in their city—which would eliminate 1,100 jobs and move many to Mexico—they realized they had to bring attention to their struggle.

As part of their strategy, IUE/CWA Local 808 members—900 of which work at Whirlpool—decided to stage a rally in late February in front of the plant to stir up public support. They ended up getting help from an unlikely source: Whirlpool Evansville Division’s Vice-President Paul Coburn. With his threat to Evansville employees in an internal employee newsletter that potential employers in the Evansville region might not want to hire union members who attend a rally, Coburn helped bring attention to workers' plight.

Local 808 filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and unions and their supporters have picked up the story. Do an Internet search of his name combined with Whirlpool and Evansville, and you will get an idea of potential forces converging. Now the situation could cause more than just a stir.

This potential tidal wave started as just more bad news for union members in Southern Indiana.

Another recession, another plant closing, another relocation, more permanent lay-offs. (The first round is set to begin on March 26, the Evansville Courier & Press reports.) It's a scenario that has become all-too common and accepted here in Indiana and elsewhere. In spite of healthy profits, union concessions, and agreements to “lean” manufacturing, Whirlpool announced in August 2009, that it was closing the Evansville refrigerator operation and would shift the work to existing locations in Iowa, and to a new $55 million  expansion of their complex in Monterrey, Mexico.

The closing, at a cost of $50 million, would begin in March 2010. Shuttering the plant meant the loss of 900 good-paying union production jobs and 300 salaried positions. But it also meant yet another blow to working people in the Midwest.

The anger and frustration really started to bubble over. IUE/CWA Local 808 attempted in than good faith to work with the company on further concessions, and on developing green jobs making energy efficient products, a process for which Whirlpool had already received $19.3 million dollars in federal stimulus money.

All to no avail; another day, another plant closing, another poke in the eye with a sharp stick to Indiana's workers, who are nearly blind from living in Governor Mitch Daniels’ “low-tax” paradise.

But IUE/CWA Local 808 has taken on Whirlpool before, and they know how to fight, even when the odds are long. They decided not to go quietly, and to take their fight public at a time when green jobs and stimulus money are saving work in other parts of the country. They took action.

Among other things, they publicized the fact the Whirlpool had accepted federal stimulus funds, and had demanded and received concessions from the union. The union has also taken out print ads and billboard space to publicize their demand that the jobs be kept in Evansville, both in South Indiana and in Michigan, where Whirlpool keeps its corporate headquarters and unemployment is high and rising. They also called for a good old-fashioned rally in front of the plant that borders the Indiana Highway 41 corridor through Evansville into Kentucky.

It was to be a show of union strength and solidarity, a demand for redress, a “we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” event. The Whirlpool workers had the right to be there, and to express their frustration with a system that seems to work for investors but not for workers. Most of them know that the best they can do now is apply for TAA assistance, put out the word that they’re looking for work, maybe move if they have the capacity to leave family and friends.

But most people don’t want to leave the place where they worked for years, where they raised their kids. So they came out to tell Whirlpool how they felt about losing their jobs. The crowd on February 26 was between 2,000 and 4,000 large, a mix of Local 808 members and their families, Working America activists, Jobs with Justice organizers, Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members, Service Employees union folks from Indianapolis, a contingent of union members who came all the way from North Carolina, and more.

Local 808 President Darrell Collins put it plainly: “Americans are sick of companies turning a blind eye to what is happening out there. They need to tell Whirlpool to act responsibly.” The line spread for quite some distance, and the workers, with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joining them, marched to the doors of Whirlpool. Some of the marchers wanted to go inside, but the rally leaders stayed within the law, and instead delivered copies of a petition demanding that Whirlpool keep the production jobs in Evansville.

To the Whirlpool executives inside, it must have looked threatening. To the people outside, it looked like America. It may have been everything Paul Coburn was afraid of.

Coburn may be a very nice man. Local 808 President Collins does not think much of him, but that’s not surprising given the circumstances. Whatever the case, he is fast becoming famous, but not as a nice guy. Coburn’s name  is attached to the internal company newsletter, the kind that reports silent auctions, days without injuries, Whirlpool’s stock price, and other feel-good news that makes it appear the company is something other than a profit machine for its shareholders and corporate elite.

But the newsletter, and Coburn, have achieved an unexpected modicum of fame, and may be on their way to greater notoriety. That will be up to union members and supporters. We have no idea if Coburn actually sat and wrote the letter, or if he outsourced the work offshore, but it is his byline.

Apparently, Coburn just couldn’t contain himself. When he heard that these people, these union trouble-makers, the “actions of a few”, he termed it, were going to stage a rally in front of the plant, Coburn decided to respond through the newsletter, which is given free to all employees. In “A Letter from Paul Coburn” he addresses the planned rally and potential participants in straightforward terms.

At a time when Whirlpool workers are scrambling for their lives, trying to figure out what to do in an economy that is not creating new jobs, how to pay the mortgage, where to get health insurance, this corporate VP put his name to a threat, not thinly veiled: “We fear that potential employers will view the actions of a few and determine whether they would want to hire any of Evansville division employees in the future.” Coburn suggests that employers will not hire workers who exercise their constitutionally protected right to assembly and speech.

He claims that these “negative activities” will “hamper employees” as they look for work. That is the threat of blacklisting, plain and simple. Does Coburn know something we are not privy to? Was the local Chamber of Commerce taking names and creating a list of people not to hire? What exactly are the “negative activities”? Exercising one’s rights to assembly? He makes this threat at a time when the Whirlpool workforce is susceptible to strokes, heart attacks, and the often-crippling psychological ailments that accompany losing a job. IUE/CWA President Collins called the letter “a slap in the face to employees.”

The jobs of the members of Local 808 are likely gone for good. They are probably not coming back, and people in the labor movement, and on the progressive front lines, need to keep working to formulate new strategies to help and empower our people and strengthen our communities. Labor leaders and union members need to press for stimulus that goes to job creation, demand an industrial policy (something all our manufacturing competitors have), promote new technologies and encourage smart long-term investment, reform free trade to fair trade, and reign in the power of the banks and the investment sector.

But we cannot press for tougher enforcement of labor rights abroad when fear and intimidation are used against workers right here. What Coburn did was wrong. It was a clear attempt to intimidate American workers and keep them from exercising their rights to protected union activities, and their rights as American citizens to free assembly.  

The local 808's unfair labor practice charges against Whirlpool will now go to the NLRB. That’s good, but it’s not enough. They are talking about further action down in Evansville as the plant closing plays out. They will need our help. As Trumka has stated, “Whirlpool has taken the war against American workers to a new level.”

The problems in Evansville have attracted the attention of union locals across the country, and of local politicians like Indiana legislator Trent Van Haaften, Evansville mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, and local clergy members like the Reverend Phil Hoy, who was “appalled by Whirlpool’s disregard for the community.”

Support is building, but to go further will require sustained effort.  Though the issue of the relocation of the Evansville jobs may be a tough one to win, it appears the fight is not yet over. At the very least, Local 808 members are not conceding. They would like to make Paul Coburn famous, and I support their effort. I have called Whirlpool in Evansville and demanded the company and Coburn issue a public apology, in person, to the members of Local 808.

I would like to see a line drawn between acceptable and outrageous. Maybe we can cause a tidal wave, and who knows where it will make landfall. Meanwhile, the members of Local 808 continue to act: In spite of all their troubles, their Haiti collection bucket was at $1,865 as of February 26. If you asked them about it, they would say it’s nothing, it’s just what they do.

To join the struggle in Evansville, write or call Paul Coburn at: 5401 Hwy. 41 N Evansville, IN, 47727-0001 | Phone: (812) 426-4705 / (812) 426-4236 | Fax: (812) 426-4245

To sign the AFL-CIO petition, go here. For the original text of Coburn’s letter, go here.

Joseph Varga is the spokesperson for South Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, based in Bloomington.

Joseph Varga is the spokesperson for South Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, based in Bloomington. He is also an assistant professor in the Indiana University Labor Studies Program. A former truck driver and Teamster rank-and-file activist, he welcomes comments and criticisms to be sent to vargj892@gmail.com.

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