Fall River, Mass., Local 1499 members rallied on May 12 against Philips Lighting’s plan to close its plant there and move the manufacturing jobs to Mexico. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and other Massachusetts political heavyweights joined hundreds of IBEW members on the state’s South Coast May 12 to rally against the outsourcing of more than 150 local jobs to Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts speaks at the May 12 rally as fellow Rep. Joe Kennedy III (l) waits for his turn to speak and IBEW Second District International Representative Ed Starr looks on.

On April 20, Philips Lighting announced suddenly that it was closing its Fall River, Mass., plant and shifting its operations to Monterrey, the capital of the Mexican state of Nuevo León. Within days, Fall River Local 1499’s leaders and Second District officials were able to mobilize members of the IBEW, Teamsters Local 25 and other unions to rally outside Philips’ facility in protest.

“Philips is claiming they’re moving to Mexico to optimize production, but let’s call this what it really is – a decision to pay low wages to foreign workers,” said Fall River Local 1499 Business Manager Rui Pacheco, who only found out about the planned move the day of the company’s official announcement.

IBEW Second District International Vice President Michael Monahan said that the North American Free Trade Agreement has made such moves too easy.

“Since 2001, the United States has lost more than 800,000 good-paying and mainly union manufacturing jobs, with health insurance and retirement plans, thanks to NAFTA,” Monahan told the rally crowd. “And the U.S. minimum wage is 12 times higher than it is in Mexico, where labor and environmental laws get skirted and corporations are allowed to exploit workers in ways that the United States does not allow.”

Of the 160 workers affected, Local 1499 represents 97, who have an average of 32 years of dedicated and loyal service to the company, Pacheco said. “More than once, our workers have accepted concessions during contract negotiations to help keep their jobs in Fall River, and this is how they’re repaid?”

If the plan can’t be stopped, the closure of the Southeastern Massachusetts plant would happen in stages from now through early 2019. But the company and local officials seem to be treating the closure and move as done deals.

“We’re not going down without a fight,” Monahan said.

Fortunately, IBEW members are not battling alone. At a May 7 press conference, Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia said that the Netherlands-based Philips has received more than $2 million in state and local tax breaks and other financial considerations since 1994.

“If you take our tax breaks, then you should be required to make your products in the United States,” he said.

Correia was among the elected officials on hand at the May rally to show their support for the Philips employees. Sens. Markey and Warren were joined from Washington by Reps. Joe Kennedy III and William Keating, from Boston by Secretary of State Bill Galvin, and from Fall River State Representatives Carol Fiola and Paul Schmid.

“Decisions like this don’t just affect workers,” Markey said. “They hurt hundreds of families directly and thousands of Fall River residents.”

“What Philips is doing is wrong, and it is up to the rest of us to call them out,” Warren said. “You don’t get to walk away with millions of dollars in tax breaks and then turn around and spit in the face of your own workers.”

“This fight is not over,” Kennedy said. “Your voices matter, now more than ever.”

Second District International Representative John Horak told The Boston Herald that he welcomed the congressional scrutiny. “A lot of politicians are starting to see it as a serious issue,” he said. “It’s not just a Massachusetts issue; it’s happening across the country.”

After Philips’ announcement, former Fall River Mayor William Flanagan, via Twitter, called on President Donald Trump to stand up for American workers and to intervene to stop the planned closure. So far, the White House has remained mostly silent, save for a spokesperson’s statement to The Herald that did not directly reference the Philips plant but instead said that the president “is committed to defending the American worker.”

Horak’s colleague, Second District International Representative Ed Starr, said he hopes the May 12 rally will encourage all of Massachusetts’ elected representatives to work harder to preserve Bay State jobs.

“We’re in the position to let the community and workers know we’re also there for them,” Starr said. “This closure will affect this entire community, not just the workers who’ve been told their jobs are disappearing.”

Shortly after Philips’ announcement, thanks largely to IBEW’s urging, Massachusetts’s entire congressional delegation — all nine House of Representatives members and both senators — signed on to a letter of protest to Philips Lighting North America Chief Executive Officer Chris White.

“Your decision to close the facility in Fall River and relocate to Mexico fails to take into account the benefits of operating in a community that has shown a willingness to work with the company to make it successful,” the letter read. “[I]t turns a blind eye and cold shoulder on the families and community that were integral to the success of Phillips Lighting over 20 years.

“The tax cut signed into law by President Trump last year was intended to incentivize further investment by companies into their products and workforces, but Philips Lighting has chosen instead to use that largesse to reward stockholders and further outsource American jobs.”

Pacheco underlined that point. “Recent tax breaks afforded to corporate America have not correlated with any bonuses or increases in wages at Philips,” he said. “Rather, Philips’ shareholders have been showered with $187.4 million in stock buybacks.”

In late April, another letter to White, signed by two-thirds of the state’s senators, noted that the Philips plant was a small but important part of Massachusetts’ economy, where manufacturing accounts for 10.1 percent of its economic output and 7.8 percent of its workforce. Fifty-two members of the Massachusetts House signed a similar letter.

Even more support for the workers came in letters from Massachusetts’ Attorney General Maura Healey, State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, and State Auditor Suzanne Bump. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has remained largely silent on the issue, though his office says it has deployed a labor rapid response team to assist employees impacted by the layoffs.

Fall River’s city council passed a resolution that called on Philips to consider the impact that the company’s decision would have on its workers and their families, not to mention the area’s overall economy.

Pacheco hopes that the controversy over the closure will force other company leaders considering similar moves to give greater thought to such ideas.

“Even if they can’t protect our jobs,” he said, “maybe they’ll protect someone else’s jobs. Until then, we’ll do everything we can to keep these jobs right here in Fall River.”