Talk about mixed emotions. On January 17, Wisconsin unions were celebrating the submission of 1.1 million signatures for Governor Scott Walker’s recall; the very next day they were bemoaning an unprecedented strike settlement at Manitowoc Company (MC) calling for voluntary union dues. It’s no comfort that, with the recall looming, Walker has rejected so-called “right to work” legislation that would impose voluntary dues on all Wisconsin unions. The Manitowoc deal may be a harbinger of things to come.
The settlement ended a ten-week strike by the 200 members of International Association of Machinists Local 516 at MC’s crane manufacturing facility in Manitowoc, WI. The Local also has a separate collective bargaining agreement, expiring April 1, for 220 members working at MC’s food service division, which makes commercial kitchen and restaurant equipment. Other unions on the property include Boilermakers Local 443, Office & Professional Employees Local 9, and Electrical Workers Local 158, whose contract is up this month. Will these unions also be confronted with “voluntary dues” demands? More accurately, why wouldn’t they? And why wouldn’t other unions in the state or the country for that matter?
The employer’s got its spiel down, however transparent or absurd. In a full page ad published in Manitowoc’s Herald Times Reporter, MC claimed to speak for an unspecified number of anonymous IAM members who have certain “concerns” about paying dues. Fear not, MC says; its “Freedom of Choice” plan would liberate them from that arduous obligation while IAM would remain “the exclusive bargaining representative.” Consequently, “All employees would have the benefits and protections of the collective bargaining agreement” whether they pay dues or not.
Never mind that Machinists rejected the company’s “offer” 180-2 and went on strike over it. Never mind that MC imported scabs during the dispute and raised the specter of “permanent replacements.” Never mind that state and federal labor laws prohibit employer interference with the union and coercion of its members. Never mind that those same laws—as MC pointed out in its ad—give the IAM exclusive authority to bargain for all the workers in the unit. MC asserted an authority of its own to dictate the union’s relationship with its members and, ultimately, the union’s financial bottom line. Fox, meet chicken coop.
MC’s demands, which eliminate dues check-off and require an annual opt-out period for dues, are a slightly less onerous private sector version of Act 10, the controversial legislation Walker and GOP state legislators imposed early last year to defund and decertify public sector unions representing approximately 300,000 state, county, municipal and school district workers. In that instance, however, there was not so much as a phone call between Walker and the unions, not for the latter’s lack of trying. Walker steadfastly refused to meet, let alone bargain, despite massive protests. Major pay cuts and other economic sacrifices are part of the new law, and most public unions have completely lost bargaining rights.
What saved the Machinists from the same fate is that they (and other private sector unions) are covered by federal labor laws that are still intact and under the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. To emulate Walker-style union busting would require either (1) new so-called “right to work” laws like those Indiana recently enacted or (2) something less ambitious and less overtly controversial, e.g. contract demands for voluntary dues that would finish off unions one at a time.
IAM and its members admittedly were unprepared for what MC was about to do. They had enjoyed reasonably good labor relations without major incident for decades, and the company had weathered the recent recession well, earning millions in annual profits. Why, then, did MC embark on this path? To follow it requires a dizzying trip down the proverbial rabbit hole of Malice in Wonderland industrial relations.
MC president and CEO Glen Tellock serves on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which hailed Walker and Act 10 for reforms that “diminish the strength and power of public employee unions in Wisconsin." Protesters have repeatedly targeted WMC precisely because of its anti-worker, pro-Walker activities.
Walker, in turn, has strong ties to the Club for Growth, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Bradley Foundation, all of which promote antiunion legislation and get funding from the antiunion oil/energy billionaire Koch Brothers and other wealthy right-wingers. He’s now getting buckets of bucks from several similarly disposed and well-heeled out-of state benefactors to fend off his recall. As this is written, he’s in Washington, DC, at the Conservative Political Action Conference where his pitch included instructions on how to make contributions via text message (quite a feat for a guy who got punked in a phone call from a David Koch imposter).
Serving on MC’s board of directors is Roy V. Armes, president and CEO of Cooper Tire & Rubber in Findlay, Ohio. He presided over a lock out of about 1,000 Steelworkers who rejected the company’s wage and other concession demands. MC board member Virgis Colbert is from MillerCoors, which has its own labor relations baggage, most recently in Milwaukee where it stalled contract talks with 500 Brewery Workers and then called out police over a peaceful labor protest. Like MC, Cooper and MillerCoors are profitable companies with handsome rewards for executives.
A pivotal player in direct negotiations sits on a lower rung of MC’s corporate ladder. Harry Wayne Bunch is not on the board, nor is he one of the senior management listed on the company’s web site, but Machinists know him well. He was MC’s main mouthpiece during IAM’s crane talks and is again now that the food service unit is in bargaining.
Bunch is MC’s vice president of Global Labor Relations, a job he’s had for about two years. From 1995 to 2008 he was at Tenneco, a vast auto parts company headquartered in Illinois. He was VP of human resources when the 40 members of United Auto Workers Local 660 struck in 2004 over Tenneco’s demand to eliminate retiree health insurance; the company permanently replaced them. The union was finally busted by a Bush II NLRB ruling in April 2008.
Between 1979 and 1995, Bunch was busy at International Paper in various HR capacities. He got promoted to manager of employee relations in 1987, right around the time the company locked out and replaced 13,000 workers in Alabama and was subsequently struck by thousands more in three other states, including Wisconsin, over concession demands and toxic working conditions. The most notorious battle was with the 1250 striking members of United Paperworkers Local 14 in Jay, Maine. Just like the Auto Workers under Bunch after them, they, too, were permanently replaced, their union decertified.
Also working on behalf of Manitowoc Company is the law firm of Buelow Vetter, which—like Bunch—specializes in “union avoidance,” decertification and such, a.k.a. union busting. Located in (where else?) the Republican enclave of Waukesha, the firm was formed in March 2010 by some lawyers from another law office who wanted to work in a “flexible business model,” according to firm president Robert Buikema. Business has been brisk.
The firm’s web site lists a host of services in the arena of labor law, mostly how to get around it. It has helpful hints in how to maintain a “union-free workplace,” including advising employers on “what they can lawfully do to prevail when an election occurs.” How else can this be interpreted but busting a union after it’s been certified? They also have services for “public sector labor relations” and “strikes & picketing.” MC has recently taken steps to discipline at least one striking IAM member for activities while he was off both the company payroll and the company property.
Whatever the relationships on the bosses’ side of the bargaining table—and just from what pops up on Google, they are complex and formidable—one thing is abundantly clear: The unions at Manitowoc Company and everywhere else in the known universe had better hope for the best but prepare for the worst as employers, private and public, will undoubtedly press for so-called “right to work” by other means—and by any means necessary.