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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 30, 2010, 10:32 am

UE Determined to Clip Wings of Aerospace Giant, Save Jobs in Mass.

BY Roger Bybee

Faced with aerospace giant Esterline Technologies plan to move their jobs from Taunton, Mass., to a low-wage plant in Mexico and a nonunion operation in California, members of United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) Local 204 plan to exhaust every means to keep the plant operating, possibly under their own management.

Local 204 is prepared to challenge Esterline on every front to save the 85 union jobs and 15 non-union office jobs at the Taunton subsidiary known as Haskon, which makes silicone gaskets and seals for aircraft. "These jobs are not obsolete," says UE Northeastern President Peter Knowlton. "This is not an outdated buggy-whip factory. The technology in the industry hasn't overtaken the machinery we have here."

While Esterline has thrown up a number of barriers to prevent the plant from continuing in the future, the union has countered with public rallies, a candlelight vigil, mobilizing support from public officials including Rep. Barney Frank, and a plan to use "eminent domain" to have the city take control of the equipment and property in the name of the vital "public purpose" of saving jobs.

But Esterline hopes to head off the union's efforts by selling off the equipment at a Dec. 14 auction. However, the union has already alerted other unions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island about the company's plan and will be holding a rally at the auction site.

Esterline has also received letters from Rep. Barney Frank, State Sen. Mark Pacheco (D-Taunton), the Taunton City Council, and the UE requesting that the auction be postponed. The union has received no response.

If Esterline still moves ahead with the auction, the corporation's efforts to block the union from entering the industry makes it vulnerable to lawsuits on several grounds, says Knowlton.

The UE has been trying for months to persuade Esterline to sell the workers the equipment at Haskon so that they can either operate the plant on their own or hook up with another aerospace firm. The union has lined up a former plant manager to assist with running the operation without Esterline.

However, Esterline, based in Bellevue, Washington, has claimed it needs to auction off the plant in order to raise the cash needed for severance payments to the workers.

$119.8 MILLION IN PROFITS

Since Esterline—which makes a substantial part of its revenue from US taxpayers—reported $119.8 million in profits in 2009, that claim generates little credibility in Taunton.

Wage levels at Mexican plants like Esterline's in Tijuana run at about 10% of US manufacturing pay, according to Jeff Faux's The Global Class War.

"These people want to work,"  Knowlton says of his members. "They say, 'I want a job. I don't want unemployment compensation.' They are ready to fight for their jobs."

Knowlton outlines how the UE sees its place in battling plant closings, which is a far cry from playing the "funeral director" role of some unions in seeking only an orderly shutdown:

Just because someone says you can't win, that the other side holds all the cards, doesn't mean we stop trying. We search out reasons on why we should try something. Jesse Jackson has said it a million times: if you don't try, how do you know you can't win?

"So the members are ready to fight it all the way, which is something our union strongly believes in," said Knowlton. "This is our union's culture. We're willing to do things outside the box.

Indeed it is. The UE in Chicago gained international attention in December, 2008 when its members occupied the Republic Windows and Doors in order to force Republic and its recently-bailed out banker, the Bank of America, to pay them their full pay and benefits when the plant was about to be closed suddenly.

All the attention on the takeover—very rare and highly illegal in America since a US Supreme Court ruling in the Fansteel sit-down strike case in 1939—won the endorsement of then-President Elect Barack Obama and also encouraged California-based Serious Materials to buy the plant and recognize the union.  ( see also here, here, and here).

In Taunton, the UE is investigating—with support from a strong majority of the 9-member City Council—how the city can seize the equipment for a compelling "public use" and then compensate Esterline at fair market value for the machinery.

Because Esterline is operating Haskon in a leased plant, a legal technicality means that the eminent domain issue will likely require the involvement of the State Legislature, which reconvenes in January.

Meanwhile, the UE is steaming ahead with efforts to explain its mission of saving jobs and the local productive base, working to gain more allies, and to get preliminary steps for eminent domain wrapped up, like having a firm complete its appraisal of the value of the machinery and presses at Haskon.

Using "eminent domain" is an approach tried by some local unions, including the UE elsewhere in Massachusetts in the mid-1990's and by militant United Steelworker unions in Youngstown,Ohio in 1980 to block the shutdown of steel mills, who were aided by lawyer and labor activist Staughton Lynd. But the judge rejected the workers' claim in Youngstown.. 

While these efforts have met with mixed success at the hands of judges, the decisive factor is the level of social mobilization behind the effort, argues noted social critic Noam Chomsky:

Courts are influenced by popular pressure…. I never read the judgment of the Youngstown judge who said you can't do it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there had been ferment in the streets and people in the country were calling for support and so on, that the opposite decision might have been reached.


PROFITABLE AND PRODUCTIVE: WHY CLOSE?

Along the way in Taunton, the union is finding broad public support. "The logic of people losing their jobs this way just doesn't fit. They are making a useful product and earning a profit for Esterline.

"Yes, I know this is a capitalist society, but Esterline isn't playing by the rules," Knowlton charges. "They are running all the red lights and yield signs and ignoring the speed limits, all to destroy productive jobs."

UE's Facebook page is providing updated information on the rapidly-changing situation.

Earlier reports on the UE campaign in Taunton:

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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