This Saturday's “One Nation” rally in Washington, D.C.—organized initially by the AFL-CIO and NAACP—has been badly needed to outline a bold program to re-generate hope and activism among people worn down by today’s terrible economy.
But what will labor folks be asked to do once they get back to their hometowns after the rally? With the AFL-CIO finally applying some “street heat” in the nation’s capital, will labor’s leaders also recognize the need for ongoing mass protests at the local level?
Understandably, the AFL-CIO will be assigning highest priority in the next month to firing up other union members and their families to vote for Democratic candidates and prevent Republicans from gaining control of the House on November 2. A GOP takeover the House would blot out any and all hope of more forceful steps to heal the economy. This effort makes sense—if labor doesn’t stop there. Specifically, there is a badly-missing and vital component to the AFL-CIO strategy: forcefully and visibly taking on the forces that are destroying jobs and foreclosing working families’ homes en masse.
That’s why battles like the United Electrical workers Local 204 is waging against the Haskon plant closing in Taunton, Mass., is so crucial. Haskon’s parent company, Esterline Technologies, is moving to shut down a profitable plant and relocating the jobs to lower-wage facilities in Tijuana, Mexico (where wages in border-area plants are about 10% of manufacturing jobs in the United States) and Brea, Calif.
Struggles like the Taunton battle offer working people an alternative to the pervasive mindset of utter hopelessness and powerlessness. Workers finally get an outlet for the suffering, humiliation and insecurity that they have suffered since the recession turned their lives inside out. The Great Recession, occurring in a context of easy and rapid capital mobility unimaginable during the Great Depression, has magnified Corporate America’s power to threaten them with job loss unless they capitulate to more and more concessions.
But there is still enough political space to effectively resist these threats. If labor—and the Democrats—fully get behind such local battles, they could potentially develop massive pressure on a number of corporations. For example, Haskon’s owner, Esterline Technologies, is particularly vulnerable as a corporation heavily reliant on contracts from the U.S. government and is engaging in a highly unpopular type of maneuver in shifting US jobs to Mexico. Fully 78% of Americans—presumably including a large number of conservatives and Tea Partiers—oppose such relocation of US jobs.
In the case of Haskon, the plant targeted for closing has been a consistent money-maker for Esterline Technologies, based in Bellevue, Wash. The company has been a major defense contractor and the beneficiary of at least $66.9 million in taxpayer dollars from 2000 to 2009. This stream of tax dollars was very helpful in pumping up Esterline’s net earnings to $119.8 million last year. The federal contracts also helped Esterline CEO Robert W. Cremin to cream off $6,731,506 in total compensation in 2009. CFO magazine recently reported, “the company's defense contracts assure it a solid base of revenue for years to come."
Yet Esterline—the beneficiary of so much taxpayer-provided revenue, is moving rapidly to shut down Haskon, which has been producing sophisticated silicone gaskets and door-seals for all the major airplane manufacturers and the federal government for the past 80 years. Esterline will thereby add 100 more people to the ranks of the jobless in Taunton, a city of 56,000 where the unemployment rate is already at 9.9%
At the bargaining table, UE has explored buying the still-viable plant’s equipment from Esterline in the hope of either finding a new owner or operating the plant themselves under worker ownership. Esterline could thus help to keep the Taunton jobs alive.
Instead, the corporation has tried to exact an outrageous bargain from the workers in negotiating a severance agreement, reports UE Northeast Regional President Peter Knowlton. Esterline is insisting that the union’s right to purchase the equipment be contingent on accepting a severance deal that would penalize the most senior workers, severely degrade the quality of workers’ health insurance, deny laid-off workers the right to health insurance required by state statute, and impose other onerous provisions.
Nonetheless, the corporate website shamelessly pronounces, “Esterline Defense Technologies is a dedicated team that operates in an environment of truth, trust and teamwork through open communication and respect.”
Congressman Barney Frank is one of the few Democrats who has plunged deeply into the workers’ cause, and will be among those taking part in a Sept. 28 vigil aimed at saving the Haskon plant and 100 jobs. (Union sympathizers are perplexed by the lack of response to this campaign from Sen. John Kerry, who spent the first part of his 2004 campaign denouncing “Benedict Arnold CEOs”).
The struggle to save jobs at Haskon is precisely the kind of fight in which labor needs to invest enormous resources. Clearly, putting all of labor’s eggs in the Democratic basket is one investment that has not paid off.