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January 2014

Ill. Tool Plant Triumph Aided by Calif. Organizers
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In the chemistry of union organizing, sometimes elements bond together so tightly that campaigns are nearly indestructible.

In October, a unique, member-driven effort to overcome an arrogant, uncaring management triumphed as workers at Greenlee Textron Tools — many of them highly-skilled machinists — voted 44 to 22 for representation by Rockford, Ill., Local 364. Organizers were put to the test after an NLRB election — scheduled prior to the federal government shutdown — was delayed, giving the company more time to mount opposition.

The victory reversed three prior IBEW organizing losses at the plant. In a remarkable model of union solidarity, Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 dispatched two organizers to Rockford, not once, but twice, to help seal the win.

"It was very rewarding to help steer a great group of workers at Greenlee in the right direction and win this campaign," says Local 364 organizer Charlie Laskonis, who conducted frequent hand-billing at the plant's gates and accompanied the California volunteers on visits to workers' homes.

The drive's components came together after IBEW received an e-mail from a 15-year machinist asking for help organizing his co-workers at the subsidiary of Textron, a multinational company that declared $113 million in income during the second quarter of 2013.

"When I got in touch with the IBEW, it was a last ditch attempt to make it bearable for myself here. I was ready to quit, to take my machinist skills elsewhere and so were others," said Greenlee employee Don Lundin. He told organizers his co-workers were finally ready to vote yes at the Genoa, Ill., plant, an hour northwest of Chicago.

Lundin had played a key role in the most recent campaign in 2003, challenging the profitable producer of hydraulic pull saws, cement saws, cable cutters, high-dollar pipe benders, pullers and fish tapes to show more respect for workers in Genoa.

The Greenlee workers' decision to choose IBEW was based, in part, on their knowledge that the union's members, signatory contractors and apprenticeship training centers are prime customers of the company's high-quality tools.

President Hill Underscores Benefits of Partnership

Their strategy was validated after International President Edwin D. Hill sent a letter to Greenlee's president during the most contentious stage of the campaign, asking for the company to remain neutral. "The letter marked a turning point in the campaign," says Lynn Arwood, Sixth District regional coordinator for professional and industrial organizing.

Greenlee still took issue with unionization at captive audience meetings after receiving Hill's letter. But managers acknowledged the IBEW's positive contributions. And the company's president removed a plant manager who had inflamed discontent on the shop floor.

Attempting to divert the campaign, the company granted an across-the-board 3-percent wage increase. Organizers say the action only helped build more respect for IBEW.

"Greenlee workers took the high road. They said they wanted to organize, not to hurt the company, but to help the enterprise improve its management to be even more profitable," says Arwood. The union's Code of Excellence won high praise, she said.

Union supporters wore IBEW T-shirts into work, sported "Union Yes" buttons and countered misinformation about unions spread by the company. "The volunteer organizing committee at Greenlee was like a dream team. They weren't afraid of anything," Arwood said.

It helped that Local 364 was rooted in the community — members of the inside construction local had friends and acquaintances working at Greenlee.

"A partnership with IBEW could yield real benefits for Greenlee," said International President Hill in his letter to Greenlee President Scott Hall. Hill cited the IBEW-organized Sharp Manufacturing in Memphis, Tenn., where the Japan-based company has doubled its workforce over the past decade to supply a global market for photovoltaic panels and microwave ovens.

Joining Other Organized Plants

Over the years, Greenlee and Textron plants in and out of Illinois had been organized by the Autoworkers, the Machinists, the Teamsters and other unions. The company, founded in 1866 and headquartered in Rockford, had maintained wages and benefits of workers in Genoa close to those in the union shops, but Genoa employees remained a step behind their skilled counterparts.

Genoa plant workers had knowledge of union gains at other locales. But the impetus pushing Lundin and his co-workers to organize was disrespect from a steady succession of managers.

"The Genoa plant was a stepping stone for managers who wanted to move up in Textron," says Lundin, who had been a member of the Teamsters and the Autoworkers and had served as a steward for the Machinists on a prior job. Rather than looking at ways to improve the manufacturing process, many plant managers often just "wanted to take a pound of flesh."

Before the campaign kicked off, job stress had been ratcheting up. And the company announced that welding functions would be transferred to a plant in Louisville, Ken.

Seniority Only Counts in a Union Shop

A 59-year-old welder with 41 years of service was told he would have to start working another job on the night shift and suffer a $6-per-hour loss in wages.

The welder, described by an organizer as "the quiet one who always came to work on time and did his job," objected to being placed on the graveyard shift. Mike Reynolds, the plant's manager, shrugged his shoulders and said, "That's too bad. Seniority only counts in a union shop."

"With that smug comment, Mike Reynolds did more to help get a union in this plant than he could ever imagine," says David Pry, who was one of 22 welders when he started his career. Now one of three left in the plant, Pry said his co-workers figured out six months before the Louisville move was announced that their work would be transferred. "But, when we asked managers about that, they flat out lied." The family atmosphere he and others enjoyed when he was hired was gone. "We felt like we were just numbers to the company."

"It was disheartening after we lost the campaign 10 years ago," Pry said. "I lost faith in the people I worked with." But, in hindsight, the campaign was lost before it started. A meeting was called before authorization cards were issued. Some workers showed up who others feared would report back to management, dampening support.

This time, the campaign developed through one-on-one contacts. After enough cards were signed, Laskonis went online with an expertly-produced website that cleverly mimicked the Greenlee's online format and provided up-to-date information on the effort and essential facts about unions. Greenlee's site proclaims, "Made for the Trade." The campaign site responded, "We Are the Trade," touting the pride of the Genoa workforce.

Word had it that Pacific Gas & Electric had turned to Greenlee products — like short-handled hydraulic cable cutters — to reduce accidents.

So Laskonis contacted leaders of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, which represents thousands of PG&E workers, asking for a support letter for the Greenlee campaign. Local 1245's leaders asked for a day to respond.

California Organizers A Big Hit

"I was completely blown away the next day," says Laskonis. Local 1245 representatives called to tell Laskonis they were sending two member activists, Jammi Juarez, a seven-year member and PG&E operating clerk, and Casey Salkauskas, a 13-year member and PG&E electrician, to Genoa to work full time on the campaign.

In the past few years, Local 1245 has sent clusters of activists to assist large-scale grassroots mobilizations, like the fight to defend collective bargaining in Wisconsin or the rallies held outside Walmart's annual stockholder's meeting in Arkansas in support of workers trying to win a voice on the job.

Juarez and Salkauskas spent nearly three weeks conducting house visits with Greenlee workers. "Having one-on-one conversations with these workers was life-changing," says Juarez, who had been involved in some of the national mobilizations.

"We talked with every single worker on the list. They never griped about their wages, even though they hadn't had raises in six years. What they resented was being treated with such a lack of respect," Juarez told Local 1245's Utility Reporter.

Opening Doors, Knocking Down Stereotypes

Two thousand miles separate Local 1245's hall from its counterpart in Rockford. And Juarez and Salkauskas were younger than the average worker they visited. Yet the West Coast activists succeeded in making a connection to Greenlee's workforce. They were not perceived as "outside" organizers, the kind of folks called "agitators" by labor's adversaries popularized in films like "Norma Rae" or the works of John Steinbeck.

"Local 1245 was already on a pedestal with my co-workers because PG&E uses our tools," says Lundin. "When Jammi and Casey arrived, it showed up close and personal how much pull IBEW had to get volunteers from so far."

"A lot of time when someone knocks on your door, you get your defenses up," says Pry. Most Greenlee members hadn't been in labor organizations before and had heard the company's pitch casting the union as a "third party." Juarez and Salkauskas "weren't pushy," says Pry. After the Californians were invited into living rooms, "Greenlee workers saw the union was regular people like them. And Jammi helped especially to engage women members."

Juarez and Salkauskas returned home when October's government shutdown interrupted the vote. But they were flown back to Illinois for more door-knocking when the political debacle ended.

Spreading Inspiration

In the arduous struggles facing workers in today's economy, advocates of fairness and decency need heroes and victories to fuel hopes and redeem sacrifices.

Forty-four workers in Genoa have not only changed their own lives and the balance of power in their workplace — as difficult as both are to accomplish. They have profoundly inspired others.

"It was an honor and a privilege to be involved with such good people," says Arwood.

Local 364's organizing tradition as an inside construction local had been mostly confined to top-down campaigns. "But Business Manager Tom Sink and his local were all in. We were partners in the campaign," Arwood said.

"Meeting and listening to the employees while spreading the word of unionism was by far the most moving and rewarding thing I've done in my 14 years as a union member," wrote Salkauskas in an e-mail to Local 1245 organizer Fred Ross.

"I never would have imagined that in 2013, companies and management would treat and lie to their employees like what I was told in Genoa — mature adults scolded like children, Hispanic workers being held back because of their accents, senior employees being told their 41 years don't count for anything. Talking to good working-class Americans that just want to be treated with respect and dignity moved me to the core," says Salkauskas.

His faith in his co-workers now restored, Pry, like Lundin, a former Teamsters and Machinist, says, "Anyone who said they were voting yes, voted yes. It was a long time coming, but a lot of people who were die hard against the union before, finally had enough from Greenlee management and voted for it this time."


Greenlee Tools' official website says, 'Made for the Trade.' Typifying the campaign's creativity, Local 364 initiated a rank and file site titled 'We Are the Trade.'


Greenlee workers, including machinists and welders, finally came together — after three losing campaigns — and voted IBEW in what one new member called, 'a last ditch attempt to make the job bearable.'