“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, South Carolina, located 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.

But Kubala, who began her career inspecting incoming parts alongside thousands of IBEW members at an iconic RCA electronics plant just down the road, sees another motive in Bosch’s move.

Based in Germany, Robert Bosch GMbh, the world’s largest producer of auto parts, has established a reputation for promoting its support of collective bargaining at home in Germany, while looking for loopholes everywhere else.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user dennism2.

“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. The local says the company refused to change language in the final draft that inaccurately reflected their verbal agreement. And Bosch has instituted a draconian absentee control policy. Kubala says it dishonors the loyalty of the vast majority of union members.

“I have taken ownership of my job since the day I was hired at RCA. So have my co-workers. It’s a reflection of the work ethic that characterizes our area,” says Kubala, who notes 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.

Disrespecting the union comes naturally to Bosch, says Kubala

Even though Local 1666 Business Manager Karen Stine was working in the distribution center the same day Bosch faxed its federally required notice of the layoffs, management failed to give Stine a personal heads-up about the shutdown.

In February, 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. Bosh has decided to toss us aside in the search for monetary gain, cheaper labor and tax breaks …  As recently as a month ago, our plant CEO told us at a meeting how profitable our plant has been over the last year (and many years before that), and that the plant closure is business, not personal. I tell you it feels very personal when your livelihood is being ripped away.

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. Lancaster is a freight train spur away from the nation’s northeastern rust belt, littered with thousands of abandoned factories and high unemployment. Pennsylvania’s union density is 14.6 percent. South Carolina’s union density is 3.4 percent. Employers will race to the bottom.

But, says Third District International Vice President Don Siegel, there’s an important twist in Bosch’s corporate behavior: the company’s hypocritical approach to workers and collective bargaining.
“Bosch practices one kind of labor relations at home and then turns the tables in the U.S.,” like some other European producers, Siegel says. 

Robert Bosch is privately owned, with 92 percent of its shares held by a charitable foundation. The company’s employees in Germany are members of unions and participate in collaborative workers’ councils. Bosch 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, entitled “A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations.”

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.

As they prepare for life after the shutdown, Kubala and co-workers like Kathy Pennell, a 37-year employee and a former president of Local 1666, 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 Pennell, who performed machine set-ups at RCA and Philips, and janitorial duties at Bosch. Pennell, who has undergone surgery on both elbows for carpal tunnel syndrome and suffers chronic pain, agonizes about what comes next for her after Bosch.

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?” she asks.  She contrasts the pride she felt at the RCA plant, built in 1942 to serve the electronics needs of the U.S. Navy, to the sinking feeling her co-workers endure as Bosch shuts its doors in Lancaster.

“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.”

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. Photonis is the successor to Thomson, a French firm that acquired GE’s tube manufacturing operation in Lancaster.

Underscoring her local’s long history of solidarity in the face of relentless corporate maneuvering, Kubala recalls a contract at Burle Industries that workers rejected three times before ratification. They won preferential hiring rights for some former RCA co-workers should their new employer abandon Lancaster.

“I got involved at age 21 and was proud to be part of one of America’s most powerful unions,” she adds.