Yves here. Readers, please welcome Toni Gilpin!
By Toni Gilpin, a writer, educator and labor historian with a Ph.D in American History from Yale University. She was in graduate school at Yale when the clerical workers there undertook an organizing drive and engaged in their first strike, and she is the co-author of On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85. She is currently at work on a book entitled The Long Deep Grudge: An Epic Clash Between Big Capital and Radical Labor in the American Heartland, the story of the left-wing Farm Equipment Workers and its relationship with corporate behemoth International Harvester. Toni lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband Gary Isaac, dog Phoenix, and whichever daughter might be home from college at the moment
There’s a different sort of resistance out there, one that’s been going on a while, in unexpected places. I visited one of them – South Bend, Indiana – on February 11.
That date marks the anniversary of the conclusion of the Flint sit-down strike, and to commemorate it many members of the United Auto Workers wear white shirts. That’s because back in 1937 when the sit-down ended, the workers – who’d just won a significant wage increase and their first contract – wanted to demonstrate what having a union meant: that they were just as good as the men who ran General Motors, the managers who sported white collars and kept their hands clean. Of course, most of the workers only had one good shirt, reserved for weddings and funerals. But they wore them into their plant that day.
So this past Saturday in South Bend, white shirts were much in evidence. UAW members from the Ford plant in Chicago, from various facilities in Detroit, and from other parts of Indiana came to South Bend to show support for the workers at the Honeywell plant there, who’ve been locked out by their employer for over nine months now. Other union members and community residents were there too; all told about 150 people showed up for the rally for Local 9 at the UAW hall on Main Street. Not all of them wore white, however, since they faced the same problem the workers in 1937 did: no dress shirts in the closet. Some improvised: one man bought a shirt at Goodwill just for the occasion. Others had pulled white tees over sweatshirts. The pastor who gave the benediction, himself a worker at the Chicago Ford plant, wore a Chicago Blackhawks jersey – Patrick Kane’s – which, since it was the away version, was mostly white.
There are a lot of presumptions these days about what UAW members from the heartland must look and think like and whom they want to associate with, but anyone who attended this gathering would find many of those notions challenged. The South Bend Honeywell workers are white, black, and Hispanic, as was the crowd in the union hall. The speakers’ roster included African-American city council member Regina Williams-Preston. “We need to shine the light on the injustice taking place here,” she told the crowd. April Lidinsky, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the local branch of Indiana University, was also an invited speaker. She was the force behind the Women’s March in South Bend which she organized, she said, because she knew women there could not afford a trip to Washington. Lidinsky, the daughter of a union plumber, recalled the difficulties her family had faced when her father had been on strike, and her repeated refrain – that “workers’ rights are women’s rights” and vice-versa – drew cheers.
Rank-and-file workers, of course, addressed the room as well, and their focus was broader than some might expect. Two auto workers from Detroit gave a brief presentation about the abuses inflicted on General Motors’ employees in Colombia; workers injured on the job there are simply fired by GM. The room then voted that a third of the money that had been collected that day for the locked-out Honeywell workers should be donated to the Colombia workers’ organization.
But it was a member of the Steelworkers union who might have drawn the most applause. “People need to realize,” he said, “that unions are the line of defense for our democracy.” I’m not sure how many people outside that room recognize that, but the management at Honeywell, which doesn’t have much use for either unions or democracy, understands it very well.
Honeywell is not putting the squeeze on its employees in South Bend because the company is in financial trouble: quite the contrary. It is a thriving Fortune 100 multi-billion dollar enterprise whose top executive, David Cote, receives over $33 million in total compensation annually, putting him near the top of America’s managerial elite. The business press thinks he deserves every penny. “Honeywell is outperforming its peers by virtually every metric,” reads a typical article, saluting the company’s “six-year streak of double-digit earnings growth and dividend increases.” Cote “orchestrated one of the best corporate comebacks in recent memory,” gushes Fortune. But he has other fans as well: though a lifelong Republican, Cote was frequently identified as one of President Obama’s “corporate favorites” and visited the Obama White House more than any other CEO. He was a key member of the Simpson-Bowles committee and is also a director of the New York Federal Reserve. “Cote has received far less public scrutiny than [Jeff] Immelt,” says one source, “although he may have greater influence over U.S. economic policy.”
The policies Cote embraces, at least at the company he runs, are simple and time-honored: give less to the people who actually make the products. Labor costs, Cote determined when he took over at Honeywell in 2002, were higher than at the company’s competitors, “a situation he couldn’t abide.” Not abiding meant, among other things, demanding that the workers at the South Bend plant accept deep cuts to their health insurance and a rejiggered seniority system.
But UAW members there made clear there were some things they couldn’t abide either, like givebacks to further enrich the 1%, and last May they rejected a concessions-laden contract. In response, Honeywell locked out the union rather than continue negotiations, and brought in “temporary” workers through Strom Engineering, which bills itself as “the nation’s most reputable industrial strike staffing company”: in union vernacular, a scab-herding outfit. Many of us went out to the Honeywell picket line on February 11 after the rally concluded, and so we got a chance to see – and jeer at – the fleet of big white vans the company utilizes to ferry the “temporary” employees in and out of the plant. It’s unclear just how much production has been maintained there, but the lockout didn’t prevent the Defense Department from awarding the plant a $47 million contract in early January. Honeywell’s last offer, which was little better than its first, was again turned down by the South Bend workers last November – just before their unemployment insurance expired. The Saturday rally was invigorating, but it’s been a tough and often lonely struggle for the members of UAW Local 9 there.
The workers may feel isolated but they’re not unique: for Honeywell the lockout has become standard operating procedure. Once a relatively rare management tactic, lockouts are now increasingly utilized without embarrassment by employers seeking to break those remaining pockets of union resistance. Honeywell employees in Metropolis, Illinois – just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, and yes, Superman’s home town – have been forced into two lengthy lockouts: one for fourteen months beginning in 2010 and another in 2014 that lasted seven months.
At the Metropolis plant, cake uranium is transformed into gas for nuclear power facilities, and so workers there – members of the United Steelworkers of America – handle chemicals that are among the most dangerous in existence. They feel entitled to good wages, adequate healthcare, and a decent retirement in exchange for their hazardous duty.
Honeywell thought otherwise – those labor costs are just too damn high – and locked out the USA members in an effort to impose substantial increases in employee health care premiums, along with the elimination of pensions and retiree healthcare altogether. The company endeavored to continue production through these lockouts with inexperienced replacement workers, a risk to the surrounding community that became all too real in 2014, when highly toxic uranium hexafluoride began leaking from the plant. So the USA members, already struggling through their lockout, found themselves and their families facing the additional strain posed by the noxious fog wafting through their neighborhood. (David Cote, of course, lives nowhere near Metropolis – no superman, he.) But hanging tough is something that Steelworkers are known for. Both lockouts concluded with the workers making some concessions but they retained the health care system that mattered so much.
Now Honeywell is trying the lockout ploy again, this time in South Bend. Most people who’ve never visited know of only one landmark there: the golden dome of Notre Dame University. But the campus is far removed, literally and figuratively, from the industrial section of South Bend, as one can drive off the interstate and through town to the Honeywell plant without realizing that there is an educational institution anywhere in the vicinity. There are no outposts selling Fighting Irish trinkets near the UAW hall, though if you are looking for a fight there are several gun shops just down the street, Femme Fatale being the one that caught my attention. South Bend doesn’t usually make the familiar list of rust belt cities, like Akron or Flint or nearby Gary, but it qualifies nonetheless: its other prominent landmark – the hulking abandoned Studebaker factory just south of the city center – makes that starkly evident.
At its height during World War II some 20,000 worked at Studebaker; where there was once a cacophony all has been silent since 1963, when the plant closed and laid off its last 5,000 employees. There were other manufacturers in South Bend, too, like Bendix, which made brakes for cars and airplanes: it is this facility that was taken over by Honeywell in the 1980s. The Bendix plant, in fact, was the site of the first sitdown strike that occurred during the organizing upsurge of the 1930s – it took place in November 1936, and the workers’ victory there introduced a tactic which would be replicated by auto workers in Flint a month later. All of the sitdowners became part of the nascent United Auto Workers, as did the workers at the Studebaker factory. Thanks to their union contracts the employees at these plants were guaranteed some measure of fair treatment at work and brought home good paychecks that bolstered South Bend through the 1940s and ‘50s. In those years manufacturing accounted for more than half the jobs in South Bend.
Workers in South Bend did not all experience life exactly equally, regardless of where they were employed. South Bend’s small African-American community grew exponentially during the first and second Great Migrations (the city is now about one-quarter black). Indiana, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, enforced both de jure and de facto segregation even in its northernmost cities and South Bend was no exception: blacks were relegated to the worst schools and confined to crowded, substandard housing. But a union paycheck made it more possible to challenge those circumstances. African-American workers at Studebaker, all of them UAW members, led the effort in 1950 to create Better Homes of South Bend, a pioneering – and successful – effort to purchase a tract of land “in a nice neighborhood” (i.e. a white one) and construct blocks of comfortable homes for black families.
The neat homes created then on South Bend’s west side – those that are still there – don’t look so inviting anymore. What happened in South Bend is a familiar rust belt story – boarded-up factories led to boarded up houses and decimated neighborhoods. It retains some industrial employment, but while Bendix once employed several thousand there are now fewer than 350 workers at the Honeywell plant. Notre Dame, now the town’s largest employer, isn’t paying enough to keep the town from hemorrhaging population or to get the poverty rate below 28%. Some of the few good jobs that still exist – for those without Ph.D.s, anyhow – are at the Honeywell plant. Or they will be, if the UAW members can get back into the plant with their contract intact.
That’s why the workers there are putting up such a fight: they know just how much is at stake, not just for them personally but for South Bend generally. Enduring a lockout, or a strike, is tough going. UAW members get $200 a week from the national union, and that helps, but it doesn’t match the wages the workers had been receiving. So the rank-and-file leadership – none of whom have been through anything like this before – have had to learn a lot in a short time. Like how to reach out to churches and community groups to stock the food pantry they’ve established in the union hall. Or where the social service agencies are that can help keep workers who can’t make their rent from being evicted. Or if there’s a way to interest the press in their story when no one covers labor disputes anymore. The local’s vice-president told me he’s never been so exhausted.
And that’s why those other union members got up early and drove several hours to South Bend to show their support for the Honeywell workers: because these struggles over union contracts are about something larger. They speak to the premise that working people deserve to be treated with dignity and to earn their just due. That the people who make the products should have the right to be part of the conversation that determines how the profits are divided up. Like the Steelworker said, it’s about democracy. A democracy defined not just by political representation but by economic justice as well.
So there is that sort of resistance – a concerted refusal to bow down to corporate greed and arrogance – going on out there, but it’s difficult to find. David Cote and his friends, whether they’re in the board room or the White House, don’t want you to know about it. It’s vital to them that they promote the notion that there is no alternative to the status quo. But the thing is: the managers of GM were peddling that back in 1937 as well. The white shirts worn on February 11 are reminders that, when enough working people realize that they are every bit as good as the folks in the front office, circumstances can change in a hurry.