The Multinational Monitor


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Allis-Chalmers Battles UAW, Stirs Protests In Home Town

Corporate power and corporate responsibility - these issues have come to a head in West Allis, Wisconsin, a town that has housed the AllisChalmers company for the past 81 years.

Allis-Chalmers, a major producer of farm equipment, has been gradually cutting back on production in West Allis for over 20 years - employment has dropped from 9,500 workers in 1958 to 1450 today.

Now the company is laying off more workers (see box) and threatening - perhaps illegally - to move production out of town unless the workers agree to take substantial wage and benefit cuts.

The workers are upset; so too are some citizens of West Allis, population 80,000. Both groups criticize the company not only because of its decision to phase out, but also for the way in which the company has handled the move.

The company has been "bargaining in bad faith," says Richard Roznick, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) local that represents the West Allis employees of Allis-Chalmers.

The union's contract with Allis-Chalmers doesn't expire until November 1, but management of Allis-Chalmers pressed the union last fall and this spring to open negotiations early and agree to make concessions.

The company's tactics in bringing pressure to bear on the union prompted the UAW to file a charge of unfair labor practices against the company on April 12 before the National Labor Relations Board of the U.S. government. On August 5, the Labor Board found merit in the complaint, and charged the company with six specific violations of the law, including:

  • "interference, restraint and coercion of employees" by AllisChalmers when it "threatened the bargaining unit employees with closure of their respective facilities... in the event the sought-after economic concessions were not granted by the UAW"
  • subcontracting, closing, or relocating work "to avoid having to pay the contractual wage rates and other economic benefits without first obtaining the consent of the UAW"
  • "direct dealings with bargaining unit employees, which undermines the UAW's status as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of those employees." One method Allis-Chalmers used to influence workers, the complaint states, was to install "an information line" intended for workers to call "for asking questions regarding (AllisChalmers') sought-after concessions," and
  • "refusals to provide the UAW with necessary and relevant information upon request" about Allis-Chalmers' plans for shifting production away from West Allis and about the company's claim that UAW wages are uncompetitive.

"The charges are without merit," says Allis-Chalmers' public relations manager Quentin O'Sullivan. The company is appealing them, and an administrative hearing is scheduled for mid-October.

In spite of the findings by the Labor Board, Roznick of the UAW sees little hope for the workers. "We know they're closing from under us, no matter what we do," he laments.

In an effort "to rally community support for the employees," a group of West Allis residents founded the Citizens for Corporate Responsibility, says Reverend John Gregg of a local United Presbyterian Church. Gregg, who is chairperson for the group, says it is made of AllisChalmers employees, church goers of West Allis, some retired people, and some "regular do-gooders."

Citizens for Corporate Responsibility held their first meeting on March 7, and "around 130" people attended, says Gregg. "People were really incensed" about the actions of the company, and adopted the slogan: "Keep Allis-Chalmers in West Allis."

"We've never really publicized a lot of information," says Gregg, adding that the group has done "some leafleting" which has been "very peaceful, very orderly."

The annual stockholders meeting of Allis-Chalmers was held on May 21 - but not in West Allis. This time, Allis-Chalmers' senior officials convened the gathering in Louisville, Kentucky. "They've only held the annual meeting outside of Wisconsin twice in the company's history," Gregg notes.

"Nineteen of our people went to Louisville," says Gregg, for the purpose of "raising the human issues. We asked questions about the future" of the Allis-Chalmers workers and how they would earn an income.

"Well, we have 25,000 holders we have to satisfy,' " came the reply from the chairman of Allis-Chalmers, David Scott, according to Reverend Gregg's account.

"He talked about workers as if they were machines, and money, income, in human terms," recalls Gregg, referring to chairman Scott. For instance, Gregg explains, Scott said that " `the company was being bled white because of loss of profits,' " while at the same time referring to the workers as " `commodities.' "

The mood in West Allis these days is "very depressing, very severe," Gregg says. One reason for this is because the company managers "won't tell the community" about what they will be doing, says Gregg.

"Why not tell the community ahead of time, and give workers some notice, give them a chance to look for other jobs, get retrained, or consider moving," asks Gregg.

"We have met every responsibility" we have, responds O'Sullivan of Allis-Chalmers.

Roznick of the United Auto Workers disagrees. The company has a "moral obligation to the people who have sacrificed their lives to the company;" it should "at least give them a year or year and a half to readjust or find another job."

Such advance notice isn't likely to come from AllisChalmers, Gregg fears. "They regard that as a trade secret. "

Brian Yamel, a freelance writer based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, contributed to this article.

"There's a civil war going on"

In mid-July, Allis-Chalmers shut down its foundry in West Allis - and with it, 130 jobs. "Those are gone," says Richard Roznick, president of the UAW local representing the workers.

One month later, the company announced it was "going to move certain of (its) operations relating to compressors and pumps in West Allis to some other plant" says Quentin O'Sullivan, manager of public relations for Allis-Chalmers. As a result, "the West Allis plant will lose 350 jobs," O'Sullivan says.

Allis-Chambers also announced on August 20 that the company is "going to shut down production at all our agricultural equipment plants for at least eight weeks" in the fall. This cutback "should affect about 650" West Allis workers, according to O'Sullivan.

Why does Allis-Chalmers want to leave West Allis? The company needs "a more economic consolidation and other redeployment, that's all," says O'Sullivan, citing "low utilization of the plant." When asked what he meant by underutilization, O'Sullivan answered that there has been a "drop in work being done in West Allis, the number of workers has gone down." (In other words, the company lays off workers, then the company says the plant is underutilized, and then the company says that since the plant is underutilized, the company must lay off more workers.)

Reverand John Gregg of West Allis provides another explanation for Allis-Chalmers' layoffs.

The company has "made the decision to get out from under the UAW, to move to states where there are 'right-to-work' laws and where there is no problem with unions for any time to come," says Gregg, faulting not only Allis-Chalmers but also states that compete for business. "There is virtually a civil war going on," Gregg claims. "The sun-belt states, through tax breaks and 'right-to-work' laws, are stealing away companies, stealing jobs, and stealing income" from the industrial center of the country.

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