`Test Tube Babies' for Wisconsin's New Right-to-Work Law Confront Union Busting, Outsourcing and Corporate/political Schemes

Manitowoc Company in northeast Wisconsin is a preview of the future for what workers will face as states pass "right-to-work" legislation. Over 200 workers went on strike there four years ago. Workers say they think the company set up the workers and union to set the stage for right-to-work and other antiunion laws.
Kathy Wilkes
April 27, 2015
Striking IAM members & supporters on the picket line at Manitowoc Co.
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Manitowoc, WI-Manitowoc Company (MC) headquartered here in northeast Wisconsin espouses a philosophy of corporate integrity, respect and honesty, responsibility to the community, and a supportive workplace. "Indeed," MC says, "doing the right things is at the heart of our core values."
 
Some workers, however, aren't feeling the love.
 
"They hate us," said Bill Brault. For 40 years, he's made parts for MC's Cranes division. He's also one of about 200 members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local Lodge 516 who endured-and lost-a 10-week strike in 2012 over MC's demand to make union dues voluntary.
 
It was classic carrot and stick: relent and get a raise; or resist and lose jobs to replacement workers, otherwise known as "scabs."
 
Bill is not allowed to use the "S" word nor is anyone else after MC imposed a post-strike "harassment policy." He wouldn't even say what he thought of people who don't pay dues. "That would be harassment," he said, "and I would lose my job."
 
Bill believes that Cranes workers were "test tube babies" for Wisconsin's so-called right-to-work (RTW) law that hit private sector unions last month-four years after Gov. Scott Walker's controversial Act 10 stripped public sector unions of most bargaining rights, including dues collection. Bill and coworker Scott Rosinsky, who chairs IAM's Cranes unit, don't think there is any coincidence in how that all played out.
 
MC CEO Glen Tellock serves on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), which has backed Walker's three gubernatorial elections and championed Act 10, RTW, and other antiunion laws. Asked if they thought Tellock had coordinated the 2012 strike with WMC, Bill and Scott affirmed in unison: "Absolutely!"
 
FULL COURT PRESS
 
Labor-management relations nosedived with the strike and after when MC launched a "full court press" to defund the union, Scott said. "The first day we came back to work, management called us in individually and said, `You know this is an open shop now' and then gave us forms to opt out. That went over like a fart in church."
 
MC ratchets up its efforts when the annual "opt out" period nears. In January, for example, MC's new labor relations director "was talking to everyone during the eight-day window," Scott noted. "He said he was just trying to learn the business." Workers also got two consecutive letters at their homes (the second with an opt-out form) advertising the money they could save by not paying dues and getting union wages, benefits and representation for free.
 
"I'd like to join Glen Tellock's country club and not pay dues," Bill quipped. Silver-haired and not far from retirement, he'd had as much to lose as anyone on strike but voted against the deal. The annual opt-out letters, he said, "make a lot of workers feel pressure. We get raises, but you don't see the company sending out letters about that."
 
Scott said few members knew about longstanding labor law compelling unions to represent everyone in a bargaining unit, dues payers or not. A recent incident drove the point home when MC improperly suspended an opt-out worker and a union member for alleged infractions. The union defended them both. The day before their arbitration hearing, however, the opt-out worker inexplicably opted out of his own grievance. The union pursued the case for the other guy-and won.
 
Only about a dozen former union members remain opt outs. Some left and came back. Local 516 Secretary-Treasurer Gary Dworak said that MC has no idea who's a member because the Cranes contract eliminated payroll deduction for dues. "They don't have the right to that information," Gary said, and he's not about to tell them.
 
WHO'S ZOOMIN' WHO?
 
Where MC is making some headway is among new hires, Scott said. "They ram it down their throats-this `oh, you know, you don't have to join, you still get representation, and you save all this money.' It got so bad, one worker wanted to file a harassment claim."
 
New hire Joe Moore stood firm. It runs in the family. His wife, a special education aide for the Manitowoc School District, was "directly affected by Act 10," he said, "but she stuck with the union until it was disbanded, until it just got run out of there."
 
Joe, 30, tall and strong, looks every bit the volunteer firefighter he is. He had worked at Cranes before but got laid off in 2009. "I wasn't here for the strike, but I picketed a couple of times," he said. "I felt strongly about that."
 
Rehired last November, "I got that special chat I was expecting." On his first day, Human Resources (HR) "laid out how much I could save by not joining the union and that I'd get all the same benefits without having to pay for it. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I said, `No. I am not going to not join the union'."
 
HR also hyped its harassment policy protecting workers who are nonunion or antiunion. Did HR say union supporters can't be harassed either?  "No," he laughed. "They didn't say that!"
 
A day or two later an HR rep "called me back, waved me in, and asked if my mind had changed, if I had had thought it over." Getting the same spiel he'd gotten before, "I made it abundantly clear that I wasn't going to sign the paper she wanted me to sign. They are nothing if not persistent."
 
Now a "lost cause" to HR, Joe's only other company contact on the subject came from two foremen who mentioned it "just in passing. They said that whatever I decided was up to me."
 
The workplace has changed since Joe was there in 2009. Workers know "who didn't join the union and who walked the picket line," he said. "People are a little more on edge. They don't gather and talk like they used to. There are more people talking about the union, but they do it in secrecy."
 
Ever the firebrand, Scott remarked, "It would have to get a whole lot better to get terrible. This is the worst management I've ever seen."
 
CHOPPING BLOCK
 
Besides the tension from the strike, worker concerns fester about the future. As of this writing, two new crane models still aren't in production, and MC isn't saying why. "We used to build 20 cranes a month," Scott said. "Now we're down to five."
 
The workforce is down too. When Bill started in 1975 there were over 400 IAM machine shop workers; now there are about 50. Bill said IAM members used to make about 85 percent of the crane parts, but outsourcing knocked that down to 10. Before Joe returned to Cranes, he worked for a company that got 95 percent of its business from making parts for MC.
 
Cranes workers are keenly aware of what's happening at MC's Food Service division, nicknamed "Ice" for its commercial refrigeration products. Early last year Ice announced a major transfer of work to a plant in Mexico where workers earn $2.85 an hour. Add to the mix a recent move by activist investors to split the company in two, and anxiety soars as workers wonder about the fate of their jobs and their IAM contract-the result of five decades of collective bargaining.
 
"Management is not really informing us as much as they should, but I don't think even they know what's going on," said Dianne Brault. An energetic 66-year-old assembler, she hired on at Ice 11 years ago after losing her job at Mirro Aluminum, which shut down in 2003.
 
Dianne is Bill's wife. She's gotten two 60-day layoff notices, each rescinded. She and others are busy reworking Mexico's ice machines, which "are not the same quality" as those made in Manitowoc. Cost savings, like replacing some metal parts with plastic, are "cheapening the machine," she said.
 
Local 516 President Steve Garber reported that Mexico's defective ice bins are scrapped at an unprecedented rate or, if useable, discounted and sold as factory seconds. "When we built them here, we didn't have those problems."
 
Steve, who also works at Ice, said the typical IAM worker there has been on the job 25 years while the Mexico plant has been running less than a year. "Do they know what a defect looks like? Maybe to them it's not a big deal, but to a customer it is."
 
Rework has spared Dianne and other lower-seniority workers from layoff. So has the departure of about a third of the workforce who took the company's "early out" package (a little severance pay and some medical insurance) or "just up and quit," Steve said. "This March we were supposed to be down to 72 people. We're actually double that at 144."
 
But there's a wrinkle. Wrangling over the federal budget and a potential GOP shut down of government stalled renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which provides retraining and other help to workers displaced by trade deals like NAFTA. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development advised Ice that benefits would be gone after December 31, 2014.
 
 "At the end of December, they were still telling us that," said Gary, who in addition to secretary-treasurer duties both chairs and works at the Ice unit. Senior workers consequently took "early out" to secure TAA benefits before they expired.
 
On December 13, however, budget gridlock broke, extending TAA through fiscal year 2015. Gary thinks that but for miscues, confusion and Congress, "early out" workers would have been able to "hold on a little longer."
 
TESTING, TESTING
 
Ice workers who remain have just ratified their fourth one-year contract following negotiations MC limited to just five days. There is no wage increase-again; overtime rules got a hair cut; a signing bonus might cover a weekend in Milwaukee; and gone are "union security" provisions that allowed IAM to collect dues, possibly putting Local 516 through another test as the first union with a contract under Wisconsin's RTW law.
 
Steve said the company's "whole attitude toward the union" has worsened under each successive contract and a series of MC negotiators who don't stick around for long. "The last three or four were very antiunion," he said, including a labor lawyer who "was a real piece of work."
 
Pragmatic yet somewhat optimistic, Steve knows his members have a better chance than most of finding work once their Ice jobs are gone. "They won't get the same pay, but I think all our people would be in demand. A lot of companies would benefit from hiring them. They are that good."
 
As for himself: "I'm 60 years old, and I'm not going to let them push me out. When it closes and I can't keep working, I'll make up my mind, but right now I don't plan on going anywhere."
 
Dianne will also hang on as long as she can and cross that bridge when she comes to it. She has compassion for coworkers who are "sad and depressed" and left "up in the air" by the uncertainty swirling around them. "They don't know where they'll get a job that will pay as much. It's always in the back of their minds."
 
All the more reason she is exasperated with the 20-plus members who "didn't even bother about the future of their working conditions" to show up at the contract ratification meeting-but she understands why: "They are all pissed off. They gave up six months ago already. They're just sick of the bullshit."
 
[Kathy Wilkes is a longtime, award-winning labor writer and editor. Her stories have appeared in The Progressive, NBC Newsvine, The Capital Times, Union Labor News, Portside Monitor, The Dispatcher and elsewhere.]
April 27, 2015