Indiana Workers Fight to Keep Jobs

On August 28th, 2009, the Whirlpool Corporation held a press conference to announce its planned closure of one of its plants in Evansville, Indiana. The closure would lay off over 1,100 employees, and move the jobs to Mexico. Workers at the plant, disgusted, are quick to point out that the company has accepted over  $19 million in stimulus spending from tax payers.

In response to the proposed closure, the AFL-CIO has begun organizing a campaign to stop the shut down.

The first day of action in February saw over 5,500 workers and community activists converge on the Whirlpool Corporation‘s plant in Evansville, Ind.,  to oppose the layoffs.

Workers, accompanied by their children and grandchildren, wheeled a petition containing 70,000 signatures to the front gate of the plant, which the company had locked shut.

The same day, machinists in Michigan delivered petitions to the company’s headquarters, with over 40,000 signatures. The petitions asked simply that the plant not be closed.

The company, in response, is doing what it can to avoid the bad press. Reacting to the protests, Paul Coburn, division vice president for Whirlpool’s Evansville Division, threatened employees in a memo, warning that participating in the rallies might hurt their chances of finding new work once they’d been laid off.

Despite the attempts to dishearten their workers, Whirlpool employee Barbara Reich told reporters:

“I believe this little paper unified the workers. You’re helping us every day you put out this foolishness.”

But as inspiring as the workers’ resolve may be, the threats are real. The job market in Evansville has taken some bad hits over the past few years. A rash of firings and temporary shutdowns at Evansville’s Toyota manufacturing plant have already been hurting many of the city’s working families, tightening the already minimal prospects for finding a new job.

Stopping the shutdown?

Although the first steps towards stopping this plant closure are  admirable and necessary, one has to wonder how far the AFL-CIO is willing to go to defend these jobs. The campaign so far seems more directed at winning support for their legislative priorities than it does at saving these 1,000 workers from loosing their jobs.

The AFL-CIO’s heavy reliance on legislative campaigns is no secret. Since 2008 alone they’ve spent nearly $1.2 million on Democratic candidates and over $6.9 million on lobbyists.

Indeed, all of the press the AFL-CIO has put out on the Evansville plant closure so far has simply been used to draw publicity to their Good Jobs Now campaign, a campaign which calls “on Congress and the Obama administration to take five steps now to care for jobless workers and put America back to work.”

Of course, none of this big talk means much to the families who will be loosing their homes due to the Whirlpool plant closure. They no doubt have seen these sorts of grand sounding legislative proposals before, and would be justified in feeling uneasy about yet another. Promises of healthcare reform, better access to unions, and credit reform have all largely fallen apart, despite promises from progressives across the country.

This legislative strategy has several problems. First, it excludes all of the workers at whirlpool from any sort of meaningful participation in their own fight.  The AFL-CIO has only used the workers to bring attention to their national legislative priorities, so the workers are reduced to props in the union’s press releases.

Secondly, the AFL-CIO, or any other union for that matter, is simply not financially strong enough to compete with big business lobbies, as you can see in this graph comparing labor’s lobby with Wall Street’s.

Real Union Power:

If workers in Evansville are truly dedicated to fighting for their livelihoods, than they would do well to reconsider letting the AFL-CIO’s leadership call all the shots for them.

Stopping the plant closure in Indiana is going to take more than a petition, plain and simple. If the company is going to save money by moving jobs to Mexico, than the company is going to move jobs to Mexico.  No amount of pleading or scolding is going to change that.

Workers at the plant should begin considering what their real strengths in the company are. To begin with, they have access to a lot of the company’s equipment, which no doubt Whirlpool will either be selling off or moving to Mexico once the plant closes.

Workers in many parts of the world have taken hold of equipment in similar situations and used it to their advantage – auto plant employees at New Fabris in Chatellerault, for example, wired containers of gas to equipment in their factory, threatening to ignite it if the company did not give severance pay to the workers they were laying off. Unlike many petitions, this militancy paid off, and workers won all their demands.

When unions empower workers to become their own fighting force, there is no limit to what they can achieve for themselves and their communities.

Unfortunately, this message hasn’t gotten through to most union leaders in America. They are, for now, content simply having a seat at the table with the Democrats.

Workers, however, are not. Natalie Ford, an employee of the Whirlpool Corporation, who stands to lose her job if the plant closes, had this to say of the layoffs:

“This doesn’t just affect us, it affects everyone in our families….This is the only life we’ve known—now it’s gone. The questions run through my mind: Am I going to lose everything I’ve worked my entire life for? I try to be strong for my family, but deep down I’m scared to death, not knowing what the future holds for us.”

Video of the protest in Feb:

Show solidarity with workers at Whirlpool by signing this online petition here.

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