How to Stop a Shutdown: Lessons from the Past and for the Future

Roger Bybee

Republic Windows and Doors workers occupy their Chicago factory in December 2008.

Industrial communities are having their hearts ripped out one after another, with Fond du Lac, Wisc. – a town of 37,000– about to become the latest victim, after Mercury Marine announced plans to move as many as 1,800 jobs to Oklahoma.

But despite unemployment rates at near-Depression levels, working people seem to be holding back in responding to such corporate abuses,as if waiting for the economic recovery to take hold.

The shining success of the Republic Doors and Windows workers in Chicago, who staged a six-day sitdown strike against the Bank of America’s refusal to release severance and vacation pay owed them, has failed to inspire imitators, at least in the U.S.

As we await a recovery that actually seems to be growing more distant in many factory towns, many employers are shifting jobs to the non-union South or better still, Mexico or China, where independent unions are not permitted. This in turn intensifies the recession in the U.S.

So what’s going on with labor here? Why aren’t workers, for the most part, fighting back?

This is a far better environment for labor to win public support than in decades. The labor movement has friends in the White House and Congress, and polls consistently show the vast majority of Americans oppose jobs being shipped overseas.

One big factor in workers’ lack of response, I believe, is the myth of all-powerful global corporations instilled by CEOs and their ardent admirers in the press corps.

A corporation can move virtually anywhere it wants at the whim of the CEO. After all, it’s a CEO’s responsibility to maximize profit by always remaining watchful for the most competitive” environment and
more pliable workforce. (“Ideally you’d have every plant you own on a barge,” GE’s former CEO Jack Welch once memorably stated).

This concept of competitiveness” – used as a kind of trump card that always comes out ahead of democracy, human rights, and decent standards – has been treated by the media as a virtual law of nature.

This myth seems to have become particularly entrenched and widespread after the passing of NAFTA in late1993. Not only did you have all of Corporate America loudly screaming for the deal, you had all but 2 or 3 of 1,300 daily papers endorsing it, and you had Democratic Clinton-Gore Administration putting an official government seal of approval the relocation of jobs.

But prior to this myth taking hold, as editor of the weekly Racine Labor serving 50 locals in a town of 85,000, I saw workers repeatedly wage well-strategized struggles widespread community support against plant shutdown threats throughout the 1980s. These struggles’ most crucial elements were:

  • mobilizing the entire labor movement, not just industrial workers.
  • building a coalition that brought in community groups like the NAACP, faith community, an progressive activists.
  • formulating a strong, compelling message about the that would result from the corporation’s shutdown.

Sacrifices that the workers and community had already made to the corporation were always stressed, so the company was always clearly portrayed as the actor with the power to further hurt the town or preserve good jobs. (With unemployment in Racine reaching as high as 19 percent, it became fairly easy to persuade people that Racine couldn afford to lose any more amily-supporting union jobs.)

The coalition followed this three-part strategy of labor unity, building community alliances, and projecting a message aimed at engaging the broader community on the side of workers.

In three instances, we exerted pressure through peititions, news conferences and rallies exposing company profits, CEO pay, and written corporate commitments to stay in Racine. The pressure was sufficient to block closings in Racine by multinational corporations, including Massey-Fergusn and McGraw-Edison.

In the case of a fourth company, the CEO told a stunned Machinists bargaining committee that the corporation had been planning to move its Racine operation to South Carolina.

But after watching the other corporations take a beating in community opinion, he said, he simply didn’t want to go through that himself.

In some instances, we were unable to get enough notice to generate sufficient pressure to get the corporation to relent. But in one notable instance, the labor-community coalition was vital in pressuring the company to provide severance pay to discarded workers.

In retrospect, I have wondered why the Machinists – being rapidly depleted by dozens of plant closings in the 1980s – never called upon the Racine coalition to teach other locals how to fight back.

In another case, we encountered what veteran labor activists and authors Aronowitz and Staughton Lynd both termed the funeral director syndrome,” wherein labor bureaucrats prefer a quiet burial to an all-out battle to save jobs.

When a giant corporation broke its commitment to keep jobs in a Wisconsin factory town near Racine, the local’s left-wing leadership and rank and file launched a major campaign enforce the commitment. With inspiration from Jesse Jackson, who drew thousands to a outdoor rally despite near-zero temperatures, the local began a multi-facted campaign.

The union worked on unifying the labor community, enlisting the support of officials,and lining up the support of community leaders.

Despite the inroads made by the local, a higher-up official in the union grew tired of the prolonged, unresolved struggle. At one meeting, he revealed his funeral director” mentality: Look, you can’t win this thing. Let’s just get this over and sign a shutdown agreement. We know how to close plants!”

Indeed they do! But the local’s leadership, committed to keeping the plant open, promptly told him where to get off. They went on with their struggle, taking it nationwide, for another five months.

Ultimately, they were unable to halt the shutdown, but they won a package of early retirement and severance pay, retraining and benefits that made the shutdown one of the most expensive in the industry’s history. They also won a commitment to retain an additional product line at the plant.

Obviously, fighting back against an announced plant shutdown is no guarantee of victory for workers like the Machinists at Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac. (However, a study of French workers in the late 1970s by political scientist Daniel McGovern showed that workers either stopped the plannned closing or won substantially improved severance benefits 75 percent of the time when they used sit-down strikes or plant occupations.)

Despite Mercury’s announcement, the workers still have a chance to explain to the Fond du Lac community how the corporation’s bad faith has been betrayed by its unwillingness to make any commitments to stay in return for vast worker concessions.

The union also has an opportunity to tell the community that Mercury Marine’s unjustified demands are setting the stage for decades of poverty and social dislocation in Fond du Lac.

But the workers should not have to rely upon their own experiences and resources to come up with a sophisticated and effective battle plan.

While the AFL-CIO has been bringing enormous resources to lobbying in Washington on healthcare reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, opportunities to train union leaders and ignite grass-roots prairie fires against plant shutdowns have been neglected.

With local unions lacking that support, it is no wonder that corporations feel free to relocate jobs.

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
Brandon Johnson
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