UE Campaign Wins Better Severance Deal—and Highlights Need for Major Anti-Offshoring Campaign
Jan 21, 2011
By Roger Bybee
Editor's note: Roger Bybee will be a guest on The Mike Feder Show on Sirius Radio on Saturday, Jan. 22, at 5 p.m. CST/6 p.m. EST. Bybee will be answering questions on the economic crisis plaguing Middle America, the effect of Obama's policies on the midterm Republican landslide and progressive politics in the United States.
Despite an exemplary 13-month battle, United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) Local 204 members were ultimately unable to stop defense contractor Esterline Technologies from offshoring their jobs. Esterline has moved the work from its profitable and productive Haskon subsidiary's plant in Taunton, Mass., to a low-wage site in Tijuana, Mexico, (with some jobs going to California.
Last Friday, UE threatened to occupy the factory to prevent an auction of its equipment. But early this week, Esterline agreed to grant "significantly improved" severance benefits for the 85 members, said Peter Knowlton, president of the UE's Northeast District and a key strategist in the union's battle to save jobs.
SHOWDOWN OVER AUCTION YIELDS DEAL
Faced with the union threatening to block an auction of the Taunton
plant's equipment on Jan. 19, the company agreed to a major increase
in severance benefits—provided that the union did not obstruct the
auction, which would result in all severance offers being withdrawn.
Local's 204 executive board is recommending acceptance of the severance deal in voting to take place today. As Knowlton described it, the union was faced with the choice of accepting the sweetened severance proposal or facing very long odds in achieving ownership of the plant's equipment, which produced high-quality silicone seals for aircraft and aerospace equipment.
The local is proud of winning a major improvement in severance, but
disappointed in being unable to save the jobs, said Knowlton.
"The local's leadership really wanted to save the factory and save the jobs," he recounted. "But they remained faithful to their pledge to the members not to put the severance in jeopardy."
Still, the fight against Esterline's offshoring shows the importance of workers overcoming their sense of powerlessness and fighting back. pointed out Knowlton
The worst you can come away with is improved severance. And we learned a lot from this struggle on how to do things a little differently for fights in the future.
However, the UE's efforts were clearly hampered by the absence of a
coordinated campaign by the U.S. labor movement that would allocate
major resources to fighting plant closings and offshoring at the
The scattered signs of resistance shown by labor–at Esterline, at Republic Doors & Windows, Whirlpool , Kohler and Kimberly
Paper —over the last couple years—have failed to crack the deep sense of "fatalism over the future of manufacturing.
CEOs, mainstream politicians, and the corporate media all preach that closings of even profitable and productive plants are inevitable, stated Chris Townsend, political director of the UE. "So a large part of what made our struggle so difficult on top of everything else—the corporation's power, the lack of an industrial policy in the US to save manufacturing—was the conventional wisdom of fatalism, " argued Townsend.
When even viable plants shut down, people are taught to think, 'This is what happens to factories,' said Townsend. "I think it's revealing that this is happening the same week as GE's big deal to make engines in China, noted Townsend. "It's just another announcement that, stage by stage, one of the few integrated industries we still have is leaving the country."
UNCONVENTIONAL STRATEGY STARTS RIGHT UP
Given the intense corporate drive to off-shore US jobs seek out low-wage production sites in repressive nations like China, unions need to adopt innovative approaches to preserve every possible manufacturing job, said Townsend:
"Conventional solutions will not stop these companies from picking up and heading for the exits, for China and India."
Local 204 started employing unconventional strategies as soon as it
learned of Esterline's plans to shut the plant and move the work to
Tijuana, Mexico and California in mid-December 2009. The union
began mobilizing its members and educating the community about the
needless and destructive impact the move would have on Taunton.
Immediate action in response to a plant closing announcement is
vital, stressed Knowlton. "If you don't take action very quickly
once you get the notification, you lose leverage every week that
goes by," he explained. "Mentally, the workers will move on unless
you start taking action right away."
So the union's outreach to elected officials, other unions, and
community leaders began rapidly. The UE Local 204 members spent time outlining the long-run effects of losing more jobs and more of the
nation's manufacturing base to these sectors. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank,
the City Council, State Rep. Mark Pacheco and others rallied quickly
to the workers' side.
KERRY MISSING IN ACTION
Meanwhile, despite his celebrated 2004 presidential-campaign rhetoric against "Benedict Arnold CEOs" moving jobs outside the United States, Sen.
John Kerry was missing in action when he had his chance to take on
Esterline CEO Robert W. Cremin, who collected $6,731,506 in total
compensation in 2009, when his corporation earned $119.8 million.
Encouraged by community support and the example of their fellow UE
members at Republic Doors and Windows workers whose December 2009 plant occupation was a resounding success, the notion of an
occupation was widely discussed among the workers in Taunton. The
local finally decided that its chief strategic objective was to
obtain ownership of the plant's equipment. Members concluded
that an occupation might divert the focus from that goal.
The union worked to assemble a new management team, a plan to
purchase the equipment, and develop options including running the
plant independently or as a subsidiary of another aerospace firm.
But Esterline soon backed off on its promise to give workers the
right of first refusal on the purchase of the equipment (which
brought in about $140,000 in the auction held Wednesday.)
With the corporation resisting the orderly sale of the equipment to
the workers, the union responded by actively pursuing the use of
the "eminent domain" legal doctrine—whereby private property can be
taken for a compelling "public purpose," with compensation for the
Overall, the introduction of the eminent domain threat provided more leverage for the union. "Eminent domain is an incredibly viable tool that workers can use to change the relationship," Knowlton says. "it changes people's ideas of what a corporation is, and what our economic rights are as citizens."
THE BIG LESSON OF TAUNTON
While the UE showed its inventiveness and guts in taking on Esterline without a national campaign by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the entire labor movement will need to show up for the next battle over a NAFTA-style "free trade" agreement with South Korea backed ardently by President Obama.
One of the lessons of the Taunton battle for labor should be that "free trade" deals produce thousands of plant closings, and that the best way to head them off is blocking their passage in the first place.
"Free trade" deals have become highly unpopular with citizens across the political spectrum and up and down the economic ladder (except for the richest 10%). So stopping the South Korea FTA is possible—if organized labor unites in opposition to it.
For by now, labor can clearly see that "free trade" deals are a "stimulus" only to the offshoring of jobs, not the preservation and expansion of jobs in the US.
Working In These Times' earlier reports on the UE campaign in Taunton include: UE Fights Defense Firm's Plan to Scrap Machines and Mass. Workers (9/10/2010); Memo to Labor Movement: Follow UE's Lead and Fight Corporate Outsourcing (9/28/2010); Masters of Eminent Domain? Union, Struggling Mass. Town Take on Aerospace Giant (11/19/2010); UE Determined to Clip Wings of Aerospace Giant, Save Jobs in Mass. (11/30/2010); UE Workers Threaten to Occupy Another Closed Factory.