AUGUST 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 8
Striking Machinist Workers Put Pressure on Brown & Sharp
Ray Rogers to the rescueby Rose Marie Audette
Sixteen hundred workers engaged in the longest strike currently underway in the United States recently called on the services of labor strategist Ray Rogers to exert pressure on Brown & Sharpe, a Rhode Island-based multinational tool company, which has refused to settle the strikers' grievances.
Rogers has quickly kicked off a campaign to bring the company around, isolating Brown & Sharpe's major financial supporter and threatening to take on one of Rhode Island's most prominent politicians, who happens to be related to the chairman of Brown & Sharpe.
The labor dispute began during contract renegotiations last fall, when the company insisted on having the unilateral right to transfer workers from one job to another within a given plant. The workers wouldn't agree to this change (under the expired contract, management needed permission of both the worker and the union before transferring the employee), and on October 19, they went on strike, where they have remained for the past nine months.
"The company was trying to break the union," says Robert Thayer, spokesperson for the local International Association of Machinists Union, which has represented Brown & Sharpe workers since 1941. Brown & Sharpe refused to return numerous phone calls from Multinational Monitor concerning the strike.
The change Brown & Sharpe wanted, says Thayer, would undermine the seniority system that the union had built up for its members. A worker's seniority - which affects wage scale, security, and other benefits - increases only according to the amount of time the worker spends in the department that he or she was originally hired for, Thayer notes. A worker would not be able to increase seniority when the company forces the worker to switch jobs.
Moreover, the proposed move would jeopardize the position of older workers, the union says. "There would be no protection from arbitrary treatment, from putting older, more senior workers on the worst jobs," stated a union leaflet explaining the significance of the move to its members.
"Workers join a union to get things like seniority rights," says Thayer. "You don't need a union if it's going to give them away."
The strike has been bitter and violent. On the very first day, police broke through the picket line outside the North Kingston plant, arresting six workers for disorderly conduct and injuring two of the strikers.
Tensions rose at the end of February when Brown & Sharpe hired what it called "permanent replacement workers." Each morning, these new employees, whom the strikers call "scabs," arrive in police-guarded buses with cardboard-covered windows.
On March 22, violence erupted. A large group of strikers were blocking the gate to the plant early one morning, as they had been for the past month, awaiting the daily caravan of "permanent replacement workers." As the strikers sang "We Shall Not be Moved" and chanted "No more scabs," Rhode Island state troopers and local police moved in, spraying the strikers with pepper gas, causing eye and skin irritation, sneezing and nausea.
The incident was "a whiff of fascism," declared William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists. "I find it absolutely appalling that in this day and age we can witness that kind of behavior by the corporate police force."
Unsuccessful in the first eight months of the strike, the International Association of Machinists in June hired Ray Rogers, director of the New York-based Corporate Campaign, Inc., to devise a strategy that would force Brown & Sharpe to concede.
Rogers, who successfully masterminded the effort which brought the textile giant J.P. Stevens to accept worker demands (see MM, January, 1982), immediately went to work, as he puts it, "to place pressure on the power structure lending its credibility and support to Brown & Sharpe."
The first pressure point Rogers identified was Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank. According to Brown & Sharpe's 1982 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Hospital Trust is the company's major lender and controls 17% of the stock in trust for Hospital Trust customers. Donald R. Roach, president of Brown & Sharpe, sits on Hospital Trust's board of directors.
Seizing the initiative against Hospital Trust, Rogers organized the striking workers to picket 12 local bank outlets daily, where the strikers pass out leaflets and cards demanding Roach's removal from Hospital Trust's board of directors. And on July 13 about 350 union members and supporters held a demonstration in downtown Providence outside the Marriott hotel, where Brown & Sharpe chairman, Henry Sharpe, Jr., was receiving an award from the local Rotary club, naming him "an outstanding leader of the machine tool industry."
"You don't let workers sit there and get frustrated on the picket line," says Rogers, explaining a tactic he has used successfully before (see MM, January 1982, June 1982). "You have to put workers on the offensive."
Hospital Trust spokesperson Joseph Barrett says that the picketing has had "no impact" on the bank. "Our feeling is that the issue is between the union and Brown & Sharpe."
On June 30, Hospital Trust issued a statement defending the presence of Brown & Sharpe's presence on the bank's board of directors. "Mr. Roach has contributed immeasurably to the services our bank provides to all its customers and the economic growth of the community," the statement said. "He is a valued member of the Board of Hospital Trust."
Rogers, the Machinist Union, and the striking workers are considering additional tactics to settle the strike, including working against U.S. Senator John Chafee's reelection. Chafee, Republican senator from Rhode Island, is a cousin of company chairman, Henry D. Sharpe, Jr.
After only a month, the Rogers campaign seems to be producing results. Senator Chafee, Senator Claiborne Pell, and Rhode Island governor J. Joseph Garrahy sent a letter on June 25 to both the company and the union, urging the parties to enlist the aid of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent agency established by Congress in 1947 to settle labor disputes.
The union immediately agreed to the request; Brown & Sharpe, after a two week interval, also accepted, which represented a reversal of the company's position.
"The only reason that the letter was sent and that the company agreed was the political pressure they were beginning to feel," says Rogers.
The pressure campaign will continue despite the upcoming mediation session scheduled for July 25. To win, Rogers says, "we just have to keep the heat on until it gets unbearable."