Masterful Manipulation: Union Cast as Villain in Plant Shutdown Set-Up
The Mercury Marine factory shutdown story in Fond du Lac, Wisc., continues to offer a valuable, if sad, case history for organized labor to ponder.
The latest lesson: when you pit a top-down, disciplined totalitarian force—which is how corporations are structured—against larger democratic entities like a labor union and the local community, the results are easily predictable.
The corporation can easily divide the union internally and—unless the union members effectively explain the situation to their neighbors—alienate it from the community.
Mercury Marine perfectly executed its game plan of setting up the union to take the blame. While proclaiming that Mercury was not taking advantage of the recession, they demanded a seven-year wage freeze for active workers who make about $20 an hour and a 30% pay cut both for new hires and workers recalled from layoff.
The workers’ offer of temporary wage cuts until business picks up for Mercury was rejected out of hand. The corporation also refused to provide any job guarantees for the lengthy list of concessions it sought.
The corporation’s outrageous demands were essentially non-negotiable. Not surprisingly, the proposal was overwhelming rejected by workers before the August 23 deadline the company set.
Corporate executives know that when this much pressure is applied, they inevitably are able to produce divisions among the workers. After all, the workers face the threat of lost jobs, lost homes, foregone college educations for the workers’ children, and future poverty.
Moreover, media can be counted on to devote much more space to any union member critical of the union’s course—no matter how ill-informed or illogical—than to democratically elected leaders who were actually present at the bargaining.
In such situations where plant closing are being threatened, one fraction of the workers–especially those at or near retirement age–can be counted on to reject any concessions, sometimes, even if job security is guaranteed.
The mentality runs like this: "We’ve given up too much already. F___ the corporation, I’ll just stay here as long as they’re open and retire." There’s a militant edge to this attitude, but ultimately, it leads to a passive strategy of letting the corporation close its doors.
Another segment of workers will recognize precisely what a corporation like Mercury Marine is doing—placing unacceptable demands on the bargaining table—so that the union bears the onus of the plant closing in the eyes of the community.
"The company was just setting us up so they could blame us and get the community mad at us," these workers will say. But they typically see no action possible besides bitterly denouncing the company’s ploy to each other.
Yet a third grouping of workers—especially desperate laid-off workers who are running low on savings and food and are worried about foreclosure and their car getting repossessed—will often be inclined to grasp at accepting whatever the company offers. Some of these workers launched a petition drive and held a rally of about 150 people to demand a second vote on the very same offer rejected Aug. 23.
Bizarrely, the rally organizers addressed the widespread effects that the shutdown will have on Fond du Lac and the surrounding area. However, instead of trying to rally the community against Mercury Marine’s threatened devastation of the entire community, they urged the community to appeal to the union to swallow unilateral demands always intended to be rejected.
“The community may not have a vote, but they have a voice," stated one rally organizer. "Those guys are going to be affected as much as we are — businesses in Fond du Lac, schools in Fond du Lac, a guy working at a convenience store. Everyone is going to be affected.”
Very true—and precisely why workers should do exactly the opposite: mobilize the community to put the pressure where it belonged: on Mercury Marine.
In an effort to make sure that all voices were heard and that every member had a chance to reconsider, Machinists Lodge 1947 held a second vote on the night of Agu. 29—just before the company’s final deadline of midnight. The workers voted on the very same package that had been overwhelmingly rejected on Aug. 23.
But with the voting incomplete by midnight, Mercury Marine declared that the deadline had passed and the move to Stillwater, Oklahoma was settled. (To further encourage the move, the Oklahoma state legislature repealed penalties facing Mercury Marine for reducing its workforce below levels promised when Mercury got taxpayer incentives for locating in Oklahoma).
Somehow, Machinists Lodge 1947, which tried every possible means of negotiating a settlement with Mercury in good faith, has wound up being cast as the bad guy in the media thus far.
But Lodge 1947 still has at least two years, as Mercury Marine begings its transition to Stillwater, to fight the shutdown by developing a compelling message and taking it to the community.