To Deny Corporate Demands, Harley Workers Need HOGs to Rev Engines

Roger Bybee

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As Harley-Davidson executives’ conduct turns swinish, the company’s workers may have to call out their natural allies, the HOGs (Harley owners’ groups) to demand that Harley keep manufacturing in Milwaukee.

Imagine thousands of riders circling management headquarters on a roaring, revved-up, full-volume picket line. That would send a message that an important part of the public finds the company’s blackmail tactics appalling.

Harley is demanding that the United Steel Workers (USW) Local 2 – 209 and International Association of Machinists fork over $54 million in concessions and flexible manufacturing” rules by mid-September, or else say goodbye to 1,4001,700 Wisconsin factory jobs.

We can’t turn our back on [relocating some operations] as an option,” states Harley-Davidson President and CEO Keith Wendell, who alone stuffed $6,363,579 in his saddlebags in 2009. His predecessor Jeffrey Bleustein walked away with $42 million in stock options — yet Harley wants $54 million from its workers. Average Harley worker pay was only $32,048 in 2009.

By turning its back on Milwaukee workers and the community — who kept Harley alive and profitable through hard times — Harley management is forgetting that it risks losing enormous goodwill among working-class Harley owners if it decides to leave Milwaukee workers behind.


Harley is a much-revered symbol of American craftsmanship. The black and orange Harley label, has, up until now, represented the pride the working people feel in enduring the rough ups and downs of their existence.

That’s why, for its 105th anniversary bash, Harley brought in Bruce Springsteen to rock the crowd with his songs about both the dark sides and the joys of being working-class and born in the USA.” That’s why the Harley Museum throbs to music like George Thoroughgood’s menacing Bad to the Bone” and Steppenwolf’s free-spirited Born to Be Wild.”

So: Is Harley considering that working-class riders will not react positively toward a company that went out of its way to run over its unusually dedicated workers on the way out of town? It doesn’t seem like it. Unless the corporation gets a new concessionary contract from the workers (the current one doesn’t expire until 2012), Harley is planning on hitting the highway.


The arrogance of the current management at Harley is simply stunning. Again and again, the USW and IAM have come to their aid and helped rescue them.

After the AMF conglomerate took over Harley in the 1970s, the results were disastrous, as management tried to cut corners on quality and ignore workers’ complaints about the fast-dropping quality of the bikes. Harley soon acquired a lousy reputation. But in 1981, after a group of Harley managers bought the corporation from AMF, the workers quickly restored the luster to the Harley brand with their dedication to quality.

And company officials may still not realize that the company survived the deep recession of the early 1980s perhaps only because the unions declined to respond reflexively with a strike that would have been amply justified in light of Harley’s provocative management violations. As Local 2 – 209 explains in its official history,

In 1982 the Company, in a desperate attempt to cut costs, removed AIW workers from the Parts & Accessories Department and replaced them with non-union scabs”. Our local displayed prudent restraint in the face of this flagrant violation, and rather than taking immediate economic action, fought the violation through the grievance procedure.

Subsequently they were awarded the decision in arbitration. The AIW members were returned to their jobs, and two years later the courts awarded them back pay for their lost time.

But difficult conditions continued into the mid-1980s for working-class consumers of Harley, as the rest of Corporate America was accelerating its wage-cutting and relocations to Mexico and China. On top of that, Harley faced new competition from Japan that was assisted by various government subsidies.

In hard times, the unions did not stand idly by, despite their anger over Harley’s use of scabs. First, they sought to channel state government procurement policies to favor Harleys made in Milwaukee:

….in 1982, a group of laid off AIW 209 members formed a motorcycle rally to Madison to protest the purchase of Kawasaki motorcycles for the Wisconsin State Patrol. The protest helped create a Buy Wisconsin” bill which achieved their objective of putting the State Patrol back on Harley-Davidson motorcycles….

They lobbied for Harley-Davidson golf carts at Milwaukee County Park Commission meetings when the commissioners were about to select bids for golf carts for county golf courses, and worked with Harley-Davidson dealers when it came time for the Milwaukee Police Department to update their fleet.


The unions also played a highly visible role in pushing for reform of trade policies that allowed Japanese manufacturers to make major inroads into the U.S. market, thanks to unfair subsidies from Japan’s government.

If Harley had approached the federal government on its own, the central issue would have been one struggling company’s condition. But the unions could forcefully point to the broader, very desperate situation of working people in Wisconsin at that moment:

…in November of 1982, they made a …trip to Washington to … press the International Trade Commission to raise tariffs on foreign motorcycles.

This time, however, they came armed with letters and petitions stacked 2 feet high and with over 54,000 signatures gathered through the AIW, the Milwaukee County Labor Council and the AFL-CIO and their membership, which they then submitted to the White House.

With the support of our unions and the American public, Harley-Davidson finally won its case and the ITC voted to raise tariffs for a 5 year period. The President at the time, Ronald Reagan, approved the recommendation and additional tariffs went into effect in April of 1983.


The Milwaukee community has given extensively, too. Not only have the city and its residents responded enthusiastically to every Harley promotional event — thereby building the Harley products’ popularity — but they have put extensive public money on the line. To assist Harley with its museum‑, the city gave Harley land that forced the $20 million relocation of a city facility — a substantial subsidy to a $75 million building with few employees.

Harley did phenomenally well during recent years, until it collided with the stock market meltdown. Not only did the entire economy drop, but working people suffered a particularly dramatic loss in income.

Yet Harley has retained profitability, and has exemplified the growing trend of corporations making money despite the recession, fewer workers, and lagging sales. Contrary to oft-repeated statements overheard around Milwaukee, Harley is still profitable.

But now Harley is prepared to write off the worker and community efforts to help it out as mere ancient history and — if they don’t get the concessions they demand — to move on to more profitable pastures, undoubtedly sweetened by more public subsidies in Kansas City or wherever.

So before the mid-September deadline draws too close, it might be a good idea for the union to contact their potential supporters — the HOGs and every union and community group — and get their engines revved up for a big-time rumble with Keith Wandell and the other Harley executives.

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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.
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