The War At Accuride

 WHEN UAW President Stephen Yokich was asked recently about the UAW’s failure to organize European and Japanese-owned auto assembly operations, he had a ready answer. “The places they’ve built their plants are nonunion areas, down South,” he told the New York Times.

Not quite. It’s true that BMW runs a plant in anti-union South Carolina, Mercedes operates a factory in Alabama, and Nissan, which recently defeated a UAW organizing drive for the third time in Tennessee, plans to expand to Mississippi.

But many of the so-called “transplants” are right on the UAW’s traditional turf. Honda’s main plant in the U.S. opened 20 years ago in Marysville, Ohio–just 200 miles outside Detroit.

Isuzu’s nonunion operation in Lafayette, Ind.–which is effectively controlled by General Motors (GM)–is little more than 100 miles across the state from South Bend, where the UAW held its founding convention in 1935.

The Toyota complex in the central Kentucky city of Georgetown is the biggest nonunion auto operation in the U.S. Not only does the plant employ 7,000 hourly workers, but other companies built 124 new parts plants to supply Toyota, generating 24,000 jobs since 1985–virtually all of them nonunion.

The UAW is no stranger to Kentucky, though. For decades, the union has represented workers at two big Ford assembly plants in Louisville, as well as GM’s Corvette plant in Bowling Green. The UAW also organized workers in auto parts plants–including Local 2036 members who worked at Accuride, the leading supplier of truck wheels in North America.

Accuride is based in Henderson, across the river from Evansville, Ind.–a port on the Ohio River that has been known as a union town since the Knights of Labor organized the first Labor Day parade there in 1886.

“I remember how unsafe it was. It seemed like every night when I came to work, there was an ambulance leaving.”

As well, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) locals in Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Indiana set a fighting tradition for the area. Even in 1930, in the depths of the Great Depression, some 40,000 workers turned out for the Labor Day march.

The closure of some of the area’s biggest union manufacturing plants in the 1970s and 1980s drove down union membership. But the Evansville area remained pro-union, with striking coal miners leading the Labor Day parade in 1993.

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SO IT came as a surprise when Toyota announced in 1995 that it would build a new light truck plant near Evansville–in Princeton, Ind., across the river from Henderson. It was a direct challenge to the UAW. And Local 2036 members stepped up to meet it.

“I helped to get hundreds of people hired into that plant,” former Local 2036 president Billy Robinson recalled. As a temporary organizer for the International, Robinson was responsible for “salting” the factory–getting pro-union workers hired who would be a base of support for an organizing drive. Robinson nearly got a job in the plant himself–until Toyota management figured out who he was.

It’s hard to imagine a group of UAW members better suited for organizing than the members of Local 2036. They built their own local union themselves–the hard way.

Originally owned by Firestone Steel Products, the Henderson plant was a dirty and dangerous place when it opened in 1974. Management was abusive, particularly toward women workers. Explosions and accidents were frequent, and some of the equipment dated from the First World War.

“I remember how unsafe it was,” said Hilary Haygan, who went to work in the plant in 1976. “I worked third shift. It seemed like every night when I came to work, there was an ambulance leaving.”

But if Firestone thought it could build a plant in Kentucky to avoid unions, it was dead wrong. The workforce included men and women, Black and white. It was youthful, full of Vietnam War veterans, and rebellious. “I was 26 when I hired in 1977, and they called me old,” Robinson laughed.

Many of the workers–including Robinson–came from miners’ families, so they were directly touched by the UMWA’s national coal strike in 1977-78, a high point of the rank-and-file revolt by U.S. workers in those years. The miners even defied President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to end the strike through the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act.

That same spirit motivated the organizing drive in Henderson going on at the same time. But management dug in. When workers voted overwhelmingly for representation by the UAW, management fought hard in the courts before they finally recognized the union.

But to get a first contract, workers had to strike for four months, during the Christmas holidays in 1979. The company fired several strikers for supposedly unlawful picket-line activities. Anna Stith was one–she was terminated for throwing snowballs.

Since the union insisted that all fired workers be rehired in order to settle the strike, Anna got her job back. It was that kind of solidarity that made Local 2036 a strong union–one that lived by the old slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

That’s why, 22 years later, Anna’s husband Mike was shocked at the treatment he and other Accuride workers and supporters received from UAW officials in Louisville. After leafleting the Louisville plant January 13 to inform UAW members about Accuride’s scab wheels, they were forbidden to use the washroom in the union hall.

One local official declared that after four years, it was time for Local 2036 to give up, Mike recalled. “I tried to ask him, If the great pioneers of our union had thought that way when clubs and guns threatened them, where would unions be now?”

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CLUBS AND guns are familiar tactics to the man in charge of Accuride’s labor negotiations, Nate Niemuth. The Phoenix attorney also works for Phelps Dodge, the Arizona copper mining multinational that owned Accuride for more than a decade.

Phelps Dodge has been notorious for its violent approach to labor relations since 1917–when, with the help of the local sheriff, it rounded up more than 1,100 striking members of the Industrial Workers of the World in Bisbee, Ariz., and had them deported.

Nate Niemuth studied that history well. He was working for Phelps Dodge in 1983 when the company permanently replaced striking copper miners at its operations in Morenci and Clifton, Ariz. The Arizona National Guard and Arizona state troopers helped management crush the strike with tear gas, beatings and mass arrests.

Niemuth, in an echo of the 1917 deportations, won a court ruling that evicted 400 strikers and their families from company-owned housing in 1984. And it was Niemuth who orchestrated the union decertification vote the following year that broke the strike by the United Steel Workers of America.

A few months later, Phelps Dodge bought Accuride. There was no attempt to bring the company’s union-busting methods to Henderson. Not at first. Like many unions in the 1980s, Local 2036 had agreed to concessions that the previous owners had claimed were necessary for the company to survive.

Phelps Dodge management pushed workers hard, with long hours of overtime, and many UAW members were glad to have them to make up for the layoffs of the mid-1980s, when the plant employed fewer than 300 people.

“They want us to take a yellow-dog contract. That’s all it is.”

But Local 2036 maintained a fighting union with a membership that knew its rights and wasn’t afraid to use them. When contract negotiations began in Henderson in 1997, the company took a much harder line–and Nate Niemuth was in charge.

With the average age at the plant approaching 50, medical and retirement costs would soon mount for the company–unless management could drastically and quickly reduce the workforce.

Local 2036 executive board members all read the book Copper Crucible, journalist Jonathan Rosenblum’s account of the Phelps Dodge strike. “This isn’t about money,” Local 2036 President Billy Robinson told Socialist Worker at the time. “It’s about union rights and jobs. They want to run this plant with 50 percent fewer people.”

Ron Gettelfinger, then the director of UAW Region 3, which includes Kentucky, told Robinson repeatedly to ” take ’em out.” Local 2036 voted 371 to 9 to strike–and workers hit the picket line on February 20, 1998, for the first time in exactly 18 years.

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IT SOON became clear that Niemuth wasn’t interested in settling with Local 2036. He paid a $4,000 bonus to anyone who would cross the picket line, brought in heavily armed security and housed scabs in nearby motels.

After 40 days on strike, Local 2036 voted to reject Niemuth’s contract proposal–but to return to work unconditionally. Instead, Niemuth and Accuride locked them out.

The company was trying to remake itself into a global player in auto parts–even as it moved to crush Local 2036. The company opened a new nonunion plant in Columbia, Tenn., in 1998, to take up the slack from Henderson–but quality was so bad that it closed within three years. Accuride turned to its Canadian plant to fill the production gap left by Henderson.

Instead of taking a hard line with the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), management settled contract talks early–then rewarded the union with a $13.5 million expansion. The lack of solidarity from the CAW undermined the struggle in Henderson. So, too, did routine scabbing by area building trades–the pipefitters and millwrights needed to keep the plant running.

But the biggest betrayal of Local 2036 would come where it was least expected–from the UAW itself.

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WHEN ACCURIDE workers hit the picket line in 1998, times seemed favorable for union struggles. The Teamsters had won a big strike victory at United Parcel Service. And a few weeks after the Accuride lockout, UAW members at the GM parts plants in Flint, Mich., walked out over the removal of equipment from their plant, leading to the shutdown of GM’s entire North American production.

UAW President Yokich talked tough at the union convention that year about fighting until victory. But the settlement in Flint ultimately let GM off the hook, allowing the company to sell off its entire parts division. And militant rhetoric from UAW leaders couldn’t hide the UAW’s major defeats at Caterpillar after two long strikes that were beaten by mass scabbing operations.

UAW leaders had other priorities than putting up a fight–like building a new golf course at the union’s Black Lake, Mich., retreat and hobnobbing with Big Three executives at exclusive hotels in Palm Springs.

But the union wasn’t willing to pay out the money needed to support 400 locked-out workers–so in August 1999, the UAW cut off benefits to Local 2036.

The toll on workers was terrible. Broken marriages were common, and several committed suicide. Workers who had suffered from years of backbreaking work and exposure to toxic chemicals found themselves unable to pay for badly needed medical treatment.

One was Mary McGan–a daughter and granddaughter of UMWA members–who hired into the plant soon after it opened. In 1999, Mary had to forgo medications she needed for 14 months. Now she faces heart surgery–once an old workplace injury to her arm is sufficiently healed. She’s had to sell her car and move into a trailer to make ends meet.

The restoration of strike benefits after more than a year provided some relief for Mary and other workers. But if Local 2036 members had succeeded in pressuring the International to restore benefits, UAW leaders were determined to end the lockout.

The first casualty was Local 2036’s tradition of democracy. The International placed the union in “administration,” which gave the International control over the books.

Next, union officials ruled that Billy Robinson was ineligible to run for re-election as president because he had retired during the lockout–even though retirees have held such office elsewhere. Bill Priest, a longtime executive board member, was elected president instead.

Now the International is trying to accomplish what Accuride and Niemuth couldn’t–to pressure workers back to their jobs by cutting off health benefits again. Workers like John Bunch, who hired into the plant in 1983. Bunch had quintuple bypass surgery a few days after the UAW cut off his benefits. “The doctor told me that I have a choice,” he said. “Either I have it or I’m going to die.”

Relatives of Local 2036 members will feel the effects of the cutoff, too. Bob Pinkston, who once hoped to retire in 2008 after what would have been 30 years in the plant, worries about medical coverage for his son, who has cystic fibrosis.

But despite mounting pressures resulting from the cutoff, Local 2036 workers were still unwilling to vote to destroy their own union. As Mary McGan, using an old miners’ term for a rotten and illegal labor deal, put it: “They want us to take a yellow-dog contract. That’s all it is.” Bill Priest, the local president, put it bluntly: “The bottom line is, we’ve been betrayed.”

Local 2036 members need your financial support. Send donations to: Henderson Workers Solidarity Fund, c/o Billy Robinson, P.O. Box 248, Seebree, KY 42455. Contact Billy Robinson at

Fighting for labor’s future

THE UAW announced in February that 4,000 white-collar state workers in Kentucky voted to join the UAW, taking advantage of the state’s new policy of neutrality toward public-sector unions.

No doubt International officials like Ron Gettelfinger will conclude that this will compensate for lost dues from Local 2036. Gettelfinger, who authorized the strike at Accuride, is the leadership’s handpicked successor to Yokich as UAW president.

But organizing public-sector workers is no alternative to stopping the union’s decline in auto. Unless it can defend itself from union-busting companies like Accuride, it can’t possibly stand up to the Big Three automakers’ demands to slash jobs.

And if the UAW can’t hold on at Accuride–one of the most strategic parts suppliers in the industry–it has little hope for organizing parts plants and foreign-owned assembly plants in Mississippi or South Carolina. Nissan, for instance, used the example of Accuride in anti-union meetings with workers in Tennessee last year.

“What happened to Local 2036 has ruined the UAW around here,” Billy Robinson said. “I know people at Toyota who were pro-union, but will never, ever, go with the UAW after what happened to us.”

But Robinson and Local 2036 members have a different slogan: Don’t be next. Don’t be the next local union to be targeted and isolated by a union-busting company. And don’t be next to allow union bureaucrats to abandon a struggle when the going gets tough.

The fate of the UAW–still one of the most powerful unions in the country despite its decline–will profoundly shape the future of the entire labor movement.

While the union is only half its former size, there are about 1 million autoworkers in the U.S. today–the same number as in 1979, the year that Local 2036 went on strike to win its first contract.

That struggle two decades ago reflected the best traditions of the UAW and the entire labor movement–determination, daring, democracy and, above all else, solidarity. And the long struggle by Local 2036 members today shows that those traditions live on.

That’s why their fight is a fight for every UAW member–and everyone who wants to rebuild a labor movement that can face the battles ahead.

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