Wis. Firm’s Move to Replace Striking Workers Sparks Statewide Solidarity

Roger Bybee

Members of the International Association of Machinists picket in Manitowoc, Wis., in late November. This week, the Manitowoc Co. announced it would replace 200 of the union's striking workers.

A new bat­tle in Wis­con­sin’s labor wars, this time in pri­vate sector

On Decem­ber 7, exact­ly 70 years lat­er after the day that will live in infamy,” the Man­i­towoc Com­pa­ny dropped a sur­prise of its own: the man­u­fac­tur­er announced it will replace 200 strik­ing mem­bers of Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists (IAM) Lodge 516 in Man­i­towoc, Wis., a qui­et, pleas­ant town of about 34,000 locat­ed on Lake Michigan.

This is a Scott Walk­er-style attack on work­ers,” declared state AFL-CIO Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Stephanie Bloom­ing­dale, refer­ring to the Wis­con­sin gov­er­nor’s assault on pub­lic-employ­ee union rights ear­ly this year. It’s not about wages or ben­e­fits. It’s about man­age­ment want­i­ng total power.”

The use of scab” replace­ment work­ers has been rel­a­tive­ly rare over the last 40 years in Wis­con­sin, a state with a strong union his­to­ry. But in almost every instance — dur­ing the nine-year Kohler strike in near­by She­boy­gan in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1975 Meat­cut­ters strike in Mil­wau­kee, the 1987 strike at the Patrick Cud­ahy plant just south of Mil­wau­kee, and the 1991 Rain­fair strike in Racine — the intro­duc­tion of replace­ment work­ers trig­gered long and bit­ter­ly divi­sive strug­gles that shook the com­mu­ni­ties for pro­longed periods.

When work­ers’ jobs are threat­ened by bring­ing in replace­ments for sim­ply exer­cis­ing their right to strike — an option work­ers would pre­fer to avoid — the inten­si­ty of the con­flict inevitably mush­rooms. If Man­i­towoc Co. remains stead­fast in its plans, the plan to replace strik­ers will make the com­mu­ni­ty a nation­al sym­bol of the bat­tle for fun­da­men­tal labor rights.

Deter­mined to bring the weight of the Wis­con­sin labor move­ment into the bat­tle ear­ly on, the Wis­con­sin AFL-CIO is plan­ning a mass ral­ly in sup­port of the Man­i­towoc Machin­ists on Sat­ur­day, Decem­ber 10, said the AFL-CIO’s Bloomingdale.

The ral­ly will fea­ture expres­sions of sup­port from local cler­gy and oth­er unions at the Man­i­towoc Co. includ­ing the Boil­er­mak­ers, Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers and the Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union. There will also be a con­sid­er­able pres­ence of oth­er unions and the Occu­py pro­test­ers from across the state.

LAST-MINUTE DEMAND BY MAN­AGE­MENT DIS­RUPTS BARGAINING

Nego­ti­a­tions over a new con­tract to replace the one that expired Octo­ber 31 had been pro­ceed­ing rel­a­tive­ly well until Man­i­towoc Co. unveiled a last-minute pro­pos­al to take away the union shop” pro­vi­sion in the con­tract. With the cor­po­ra­tion unwill­ing to budge, the IAM vot­ed 180 – 2 to strike. The walk­out began Novem­ber 15.

The union serves as the work­ers’ demo­c­ra­t­ic voice in the shop, and the Man­i­towoc Co. is try­ing to divide and weak­en that voice, just as Gov. Walk­er and major cor­po­ra­tions want to silence the voice of labor in Wis­con­sin and con­tin­ue try­ing to crush the mid­dle class,” Bloom­ing­dale told In These Times.

While there was agree­ment on many issues, the com­pa­ny pro­posed new lan­guage toward the end of the nego­ti­a­tions that was absolute­ly unac­cept­able,” IAM Dis­trict 10 busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ben­i­to Eli­zon­do said. The com­pa­ny pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing long-stand­ing con­tract lan­guage requir­ing any employ­ee who ben­e­fits from nego­ti­at­ed wages and ben­e­fits to become a mem­ber of the union that nego­ti­at­ed those benefits.”

This is the pri­vate-sec­tor equiv­a­lent of what Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Scott Walk­er imposed on Wis­con­sin’s pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ees, “ IAM Lodge 516 stat­ed on its website.

The Man­i­towoc Co. has even echoed Walker’s call for annu­al elec­tions for re-cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the IAM, Eli­zon­do told the Cap­i­tal Times of Madison:

It’s noth­ing but union bust­ing,” says Eli­zon­do. … Eli­zon­do says the com­pa­ny has also talked about requir­ing a union recer­ti­fi­ca­tion vote every year. Walk­er includ­ed a sim­i­lar require­ment for pub­lic unions in his bud­get legislation.

I think all of this is being dri­ven by what has hap­pened at the state lev­el,” says Eli­zon­do. They went after the pub­lic work­er unions first and now the pri­vate sec­tor is fol­low­ing their lead.”

UNION SHOP PRE­VENTS MAN­AGE­MENT FROM DIVID­ING WORKERS

The exis­tence of the union shop is fun­da­men­tal to labor unions demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly serv­ing as the voice of all work­ers in a work­place,” Bloom­ing­dale says. All work­ers belong so that man­age­ment can­not play non-mem­bers off against mem­bers, and the union can tru­ly rep­re­sent the entire workforce.“

In the low-wage, most­ly South­ern states where the union shop” is banned, unions are nonethe­less legal­ly oblig­at­ed to ful­ly rep­re­sent work­ers who do not pay dues. This cre­ates an incen­tive for work­ers to reap the ben­e­fits of union efforts while appeas­ing man­age­ment. Mean­while, man­agers are able to grad­u­al­ly erode union strength by selec­tive­ly hir­ing new work­ers who are anti-union.

The aim of the Man­i­towoc Com­pa­ny, like Gov. Walk­er, is to weak­en the voice of orga­nized labor which has spo­ken up for all work­ers and built the mid­dle class,” Bloom­ing­dale insists.

The com­pa­ny did not set the stage for a major war with labor because of eco­nom­ic pres­sures. Its earn­ings grew in the third quar­ter of 2011, as The Man­i­towoc Com­pa­ny report­ed sales of $935 mil­lion in its Food­ser­vice and Cranes oper­at­ing groups for the third quar­ter, includ­ing a 20.7 per­cent increase in cranes’ sales.”

For his labors in 2010, Man­i­towoc Co. Pres­i­dent and CEO Glen E. Tel­lock rein­forced his sta­tus as a mem­ber of Amer­i­ca’s top 1%, receiv­ing $4,905,385 in total com­pen­sa­tion. The medi­an US work­er made $33,840 in 2010.

For Buelow Vet­ter Buike­ma Olson & Vli­et, the new­ly-formed law firm which Man­i­towoc has retained, the strike can serve to estab­lish its name as a hard-nosed anti-union out­fit in a time of resur­gent work­er mil­i­tan­cy. As described in a Busi­ness Jour­nal of Mil­wau­kee head­line out­lin­ing the law fir­m’s recent for­ma­tion, Tim­ing good for labor law firm.”

But for the strik­ing Machin­ists, a pre-Christ­mas strike they sought to avoid is hard­ly good tim­ing.” Nor is the Man­i­towoc com­mu­ni­ty like­ly to be delight­ed by an intense and bit­ter con­flict sweep­ing the com­mu­ni­ty dur­ing the hol­i­day season.

How­ev­er, for the strik­ing work­ers and the broad­er labor move­ment, the bat­tle is not one that they can afford to walk away from.

This bat­tle forced on work­ers by Man­i­towoc Com­pa­ny is anoth­er reminder that unions are essen­tial to a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety, as a fire­wall against a soci­ety dri­ven by unbri­dled greed,” Bloom­ing­dale says. We are stand­ing up for the mid­dle class and the 99%.”

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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