Goin’ Backward in Indiana: Muncie’s Omen and the Push for ‘Right to Work’

Stephen Franklin

As Indi­ana leg­is­la­tors move clos­er to pass­ing a right-to-work” law, con­sid­er Muncie’s omen.

This can be the fate wrought by Repub­li­cans’ race to unhitch union strength in their state through right-to-work” leg­is­la­tion, which allows work­ers to enjoy union bar­gain­ing ben­e­fits with­out pay­ing dues to the union.

Here’s why: Like much of blue-col­lar Indi­ana, Muncie thrived in the good times. Good-pay­ing fac­to­ry-col­lar jobs — union jobs — brought good mid­dle-class liv­ing. Then came the indus­tri­al tsuna­mi, shut­ting out the lights in fac­to­ries across Indi­ana, includ­ing those in Muncie.

From more than 57,500 jobs in 2000, the num­ber has kept falling until it hit about 49,300 recent­ly, a drop of about 9,400 jobs in Muncie. So folks in Muncie were thrilled when giant Cater­pil­lar Inc., the world’s largest man­u­fac­tur­er of earth-mov­ing equip­ment, opened a plant last year to build diesel loco­mo­tives. The pay isn’t great. But nowa­days, a job is a job.

The plant is owned by Progress Rail Ser­vices Corp., a whol­ly owned sub­sidiary of Cater­pil­lar. The com­pa­ny has anoth­er loco­mo­tive plant in Lon­don, Ontario.

But the work­ers at that plant were ush­ered out of the plant by Cater­pil­lar on Jan. 1 when the com­pa­ny declared a lock­out. The com­pa­ny said the union had threat­ened a strike and then called off a strike and so it had no choice because of the work­place uncer­tain­ty but to kick the work­ers off their jobs.

The Cana­di­an Auto Work­ers union, which rep­re­sents the 465-laid off work­ers in Ontario, said that the com­pa­ny want­ed to cut work­ers’ wages in half, dra­mat­i­cal­ly trim ben­e­fits and kill the work­ers’ pen­sion plan, accord­ing to The New York Times.

The Cana­di­an work­ers earn about $30 an hour and the Muncie work­ers, accord­ing to the Muncie Star-Press, report­ed­ly earn between $12.50 to $14.50 an hour under a UAW con­tract. (Full dis­clo­sure: the UAW is an In These Times spon­sor.)

Giv­en the deep gap in wages and Caterpillar’s his­to­ry as a tough, no-holds-barred employ­er, the folks in Muncie began look­ing over their shoul­ders, and won­der­ing, accord­ing to news reports, if they are going to be the spoil­ers for their union brethren in Canada.

Remem­ber, this is the high­ly prof­itable Peo­ria-based com­pa­ny that has repeat­ed­ly thumped its UAW work­ers. After a series of run­ning con­flicts in the 1990s, it forced the union to accept two-tier wages and a dra­mat­ic end to the kind of con­tracts that put many solid­ly in the mid­dle class.

Its mantra since tak­ing on the UAW in the U.S. heart­land is that it is a glob­al com­pa­ny that needs to make itself a world competitor.

Trans­la­tion: it will dri­ve down wages and ben­e­fits in the coun­tries pay­ing good wages because it has the pow­er to do so and, if need­ed, send the work to its fac­to­ries around the world where life is much cheaper.

Why is this an omen for Indiana?

Because the real­i­ty for work­ers in right-to-work states is one of low­er wages, low­er ben­e­fits and no esca­la­tor to get them out of their rut.

As one econ­o­mist was quot­ed in an excel­lent Bloomberg sto­ry about the eco­nom­ic prospects for Indi­ana from the right-to-work drive,

Mor­ton Mar­cus, an econ­o­mist and for­mer direc­tor of the Indi­ana Busi­ness Research Cen­ter, said if Indi­ana becomes a right-to-work state, it would cre­ate a sink­hole between Ohio and Illi­nois, Michi­gan and Ken­tucky.”

Like­wise, con­sid­er this arti­cle from The Nation magazine.

What’s miss­ing from the Repub­li­cans ora­to­ry is a sim­ple les­son in Indiana’s eco­nom­ic his­to­ry. Hoosiers led good lives for years because they built cars, or made steel or made the kinds of things need­ed by the auto and steel plants. And, they earned union wages.

When the Japan­ese automak­ers came to Indi­ana, they didn’t under­cut the UAW’s wages, but matched them because they want­ed to keep the union out.

But in a right-to-work, state com­pa­nies don’t have to plot or hide their wage-cut­ting strate­gies because that’s part of the game plan. It’s the rea­son they pick up and find new places to earn their profits.

It’s the rea­son why, for exam­ple, tex­tile com­pa­nies aban­doned the North for the South, and then, when things looked even cheap­er else­where, picked up and moved overseas.

And it will be the rea­son why work­ers in Muncie and else­where in Indi­ana, work­ers who deeply miss the days of secure, decent-pay­ing jobs, might cringe one day know­ing that they are tak­ing some­one else’s job.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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