The Electrical Worker online
May 2015

Bosch Security Systems Abandons Pa. Members
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"I feel horrible and betrayed. It's depressing, life-changing, stressful. What other words can I come up with?" says Deb Kubala, a 37-year member of Lancaster, Pa., Local 1666.

In April, Kubala and 51 co-workers will lose their jobs at a distribution center owned by Bosch Security Systems, a division of Germany-based Robert Bosch GMbh, the world's largest supplier of automobile parts.

Bosch's desertion of Lancaster adds another layer to its reputation as a corporate giant that promotes adherence to collective bargaining rules at home overseas while looking for loopholes everywhere else.

After the shutdown, the remaining production stock in Lancaster — speakers, fire alarms and surveillance products — will be shipped to Bosch's new 150,000-square-foot warehouse in Greer, S.C., directly across the street from a mammoth nonunion plant owned by another German manufacturer, BMW.

Bosch, which employs more than 300,000 people across 350 subsidiaries in 60 nations, says moving south will lower transportation costs and better serve its customers.

"It appears to me Bosch is leaving here because they despise their obligation to the union," says Kubala, a stocker and tow motor operator.

She and her fellow union members have struggled through and survived agonizing concessionary negotiations with three RCA successors: General Electric, Burle Industries and Philips. They lost sick leave and vacation time and had labor grades trimmed even before Bosch purchased Philips' security holdings in 2002.

But Kubala, who has served the local as a chief steward and as a member of the executive board and numerous negotiating committees with RCA, Burle and Philips, says she and her fellow union members had never seen in the other owners the Bosch brand of callousness and hardball collective bargaining.

Bosch squeezed the local into replacing the workers' defined benefit pension plan with a $2,000 yearly contribution into their 401(k) accounts. The company pressed the union into trading away post-age 65 health care insurance for a $14,000 cash payment upon retirement.

The latest contract, which expired in 2012, is still unsigned. And Bosch has instituted a draconian absentee control policy. Kubala says it dishonors the loyalty of the vast majority of union members, noting that even amidst the bitter tensions of a looming shutdown, workers continue to diligently perform their jobs.

Bosch, which declared 2014 revenues of $52 billion, has rejected the union's request to provide tuition reimbursement to displaced members of Local 1666.

In February, Local 1666 Business Manager Karen Stine, a 10-year employee, described the strained relationship in a letter entitled "Bosch Workers Being Abandoned," posted on Lancaster Online.

"The employees have shown longtime loyalty — many spending most of their adult lives (30-plus years) contributing to the success of the company," she wrote. "Bosh has decided to toss us aside in the search for monetary gain, cheaper labor and tax breaks. …"

Third District International Representative Pasquale Gino, who services the local, says he checked Bosch's claim that they are saving millions in leases on property in South Carolina.

"Those savings are exaggerated," he says. "This move is primarily about driving down the wages and benefits of workers — to the tune of nearly $1 million a year — and eliminating their obligation to collectively bargain," he says.

On the surface, Bosch's shutdown is excruciatingly typical. Pennsylvania's union density is 14.6 percent. South Carolina's union density is 3.4 percent. Employers will race to the bottom.

"But Bosch practices one kind of labor relations at home and then turns the tables in the U.S.," like some other European producers, says Third District International Vice President Don Siegel.

Robert Bosch, which is privately owned, with 92 percent of its shares held by a charitable foundation, touts its commitment to fairness for workers.

The disconnect between Bosch's public pronouncements and its practice in the U.S. was noted in a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch.

The report opened with an account of a 2004 strike at a Bosch packaging equipment factory in Wisconsin where workers fighting against wage and benefit cuts were threatened with permanent replacement.

Bosch's conduct was alarming, said Human Rights Watch, since the company publicizes its commitment to an International Labor Organization core standard prohibiting threat or employment of permanent replacements to break strikes and violate workers' rights to freedom of association.

Stine and her members say they want the word to spread far and wide about Bosch's mistreatment of IBEW members in the United States. The chances are good. A strategic partnership was recently formed between the IBEW, CWA and members of the German union IG Metall to support organizing in U.S. facilities operated by Siemens. IG Metall also represents workers at Bosch.

Kubala and her co-workers wonder what life will be like for the workers who replace them in South Carolina.

"Let me tell you, the workers there will need a union. I hope the union shows up and organizes," says Kathy Pennell, a 37-year employee and a former president of Local 1666.

Kubala says, "My girlfriends and I have been talking about helping workers who need to organize unions. What are young people going to do if this stuff keeps happening?"

"I was proud to work for RCA, the very first plant to manufacture color picture tubes," Kubala says. The union's influence became immediately clear. She recalls her first supervisor telling her in 1978: "For the first 30 days [of probation] you are mine. Then Local 1666 has you." I got involved at age 21 and was proud to be part of one of America's most powerful unions," she said.

After Bosch shuts down, Local 1666's membership, once in the thousands, will plummet to 37. Remaining members include tradesmen who maintain the Burle Business Park and a few workers at Photonis, a manufacturer of vacuum electron devices.


Bosh GMbh prides itself on adherence to high labor standards, but has established a reputation in the U.S. of playing hardball with unions.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Michael Schwerzer.