Accuride: A UAW Local’s Lonely Strugge

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Dianne Feeley

WHEN THE 439 members of UAW Local 2036 in Henderson, Kentucky went out on strike in February 1998 they knew it was going to be a difficult battle.

Accuride — a major supplier of steel wheels — is owned by Phelps Dodge, the anti-union copper conglomerate. But they were united — voting to reject the company’s proposal by 371 to 9 — and had the backing of their union. As Ron Gettlefinger, then Regional 3 Director, said “the members have spoken.”

The company’s proposed contract language eliminated seniority and gave management the unilateral right to subcontract. Although the company was willing to recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining agent, there were no provisions for any representation on the shop floor. Grievances were handled “after work.”

Just in case members didn’t understand the implications of the contract provisions, Accuride announced that they were planning to immediately move to eliminate all skilled trades work.

Accuride supplies eighty percent of the world market for steel truck wheels one ton or larger. Ninety-five percent of the plants Accuride ships to are organized by the UAW.

As then Local 2036 President Billy Robinson outlined, “We thought the UAW would use its clout. Just 120 miles from our plant, in Louisville, there’s a Ford truck plant with 13,000 UAW members. If the UAW leadership had spread the word in that plant, `These are scab wheels,’ our strike would have been over in less than four weeks. If they told workers at Navistar, Mack, Peterbilt, and GM Truck & Bus, `Those are scab wheels you’re putting on that truck,’ our strike would’ve been over in no time.’”

But that never happened.

UAW International Inaction

In March Robinson wrote to the UAW International to ask for a corporate campaign against Accuride. He sent them a list of Accuride customers and proposed that the UAW hit every truck stop in the country with a leaflet, enclosing samples. The answer came back no.

Within a month Local 2036 members realized the strike wasn’t effective. Accuride was paying any UAW member willing to cross the picket line $4,000 — and twenty-nine went back. Robinson told the membership, “We’ve got to end the strike, go back to work; we’ll work to rule; we’ll do what we have to do.”

The membership rejected the company’s proposal by 354 to 9 but voted overwhelming to return to work. But even before they could take the vote, they found themselves locked out. Production continued through a combination of management working on the floor, the recruitment of mostly out-of-state scabs and increased automation and robotics.

By September 1998 Accuride put another proposal on the table, adding the unilateral right to change the health insurance premiums and pension program. Once again, the membership rejected the giveback contract. Who would vote for such a humiliating contract?

In August 1999 the newly appointed Region 3 Director, Terry Thurman publicly announced his continued support to the locked out workers when he told the nearly 500 executive officers from locals throughout the region “We’ll be on the picket line one day longer.”

Later that month the UAW’s International Representative met with the Local 2036 officers and told them their benefits ($175 weekly strike pay plus health benefits) would be discontinued at the end of the month.

When Billy Robinson contacted Terry Thurman, Thurman advised him to go and tell the company to take them back now that they had lost their benefits. “It’s time for you to get on with your lives — we can’t win that situation,” Thurman concluded.

Membership Initiative

On August 28, at a special meeting the membership discussed their situation and decided to continue picketing, strike pay or no strike pay. They held a secret vote on the contract proposal, turning it down overwhelmingly.

The membership realized they needed to appeal directly to other UAW members. Robinson took forty members and leafleted the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville during shift change — the Ford workers had no idea they were putting on scab wheels.

Local 2036 members also publicized their case through the internet. Within the first week one member sent out 3,000 emails. Responses began pouring in, not only from all over the United States, but from Ireland, England and Australia.

The first UAW members to come down to the Henderson picket line after the cutoff of strike benefits were the “Blue Shirts,” a rank-and-file formation from the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois.

These workers had gone through a similar experience — a vicious strike in which the company had also employed Vance Guards and where they didn’t get the backing they needed from the UAW International. Forced to settle on unfavorable terms, they outlined their current situation and discussed strike strategy.

Other UAW locals and labor activists around the country invited Local 2036 members to come to their area and speak. Some locals organized successful plant gate collections — particularly Local 594 at the GM Truck plant in Pontiac, MI where they raised $7,100.

Solidarity House Threats

By October 1999 Accuride put out another proposal. Although the bargaining committee had been authorized only to submit to a vote a proposal they themselves supported, Billy Robinson felt that given Accuride’s propaganda against the union, the local should protect itself by conducting another secret ballot. It too was rejected by a wide margin.

In April 2000 the UAW International summoned the local’s officers to Solidarity House (the UAW’s headquarters) for a hearing. The letter explained that the local’s existence was threatened because bargaining had not been conducted in a “prudent and realistic way,” that secret ballot votes had not been held, and for other unspecified reasons.

At the hearing Billy Robinson outlined the five separate occasions they had conducted a secret ballot and rejected the company’s proposals. Robinson pointed out that the strike had been authorized, yet word was spreading throughout the UAW that Henderson was an “unauthorized strike.”

Toward the end of the hearing Robinson was questioned about the emails and leaflets publicizing the fact that Local 2036’s strike benefits had been cut off. This negative publicity was bad. Robinson responded with a question: What did the local do to have their benefits pulled?

At that UAW President Steve Yokich responded, “You’re not the first Local that we have pulled the benefits from, far from the first, and you won’t be the last . . . .” He announced that they were considering placing the local under an administrator — “a friendly administrator.”

The decision would be made on May 8 — the very date of the demonstration Local 2036 had called in front of Solidarity House!

On May 8 Local 2036 members drove to Detroit to demonstrate with other UAW members and supporters in front of Solidarity House, demanding the reinstatement of strike benefits. ABC News filmed the picket line for national TV.

Most of the members of Local 2036 interviewed indicated they were picketing because they wanted to know why the International cut them off. But Charles Gary, a twenty-two-year member of Local 2036, hit the nail on the head when he remarked that “If this betrayal stands, the UAW won’t be able to organize anyone in our region for years to come.”

Exactly a year after the Local 2036 strike benefits were suspended the UAW’s IEB voted to restore them, doubling the strike pay. While this was a tacit admission that their earlier decision had been an erroneous one, there was no accompanying explanation of why they reversed themselves — nor plan of action of how to organize against Accuride. But from October 2000 to October 2001 the cash strike benefits stood at $350 a week, then they were reduced to $175.

Terminating Benefits

As threatened, on May 8, 2000 the IEB authorized placing Local 2036 under a “friendly” administrator. The administrator took over the local’s books, financial records, and checking account. Gary Sorrell, the UAW International official assigned to take over bargaining with Accuride, wasn’t able to negotiate a substantially different contract.

It became clear that even if a contract passed, no more than fifty members would have the possibility of being recalled. In November 2001, with two-thirds of the Local 2036 members voting, the contract was rejected by 97% (252-10).

Shortly afterwards the UAW International informed Bill Priest, current Local 2036 president, that strike pay and benefits would be terminated on January 15, 2002. After clarifying with the International that if the contract was ratified at least workers would be recalled based on seniority, Priest scheduled yet another vote for January 12.

He told the local paper The Gleaner that “We thought this had a more than even chance of passing, not because it’s a better contract offer, but so senior people could vote on it and have a chance to go back to work and the rest of the people could get on with their lives.”

Priest pointed out that “it’s one of the few jobs [in the area] where they can go back to work for $15 an hour and have [health] insurance, even though they would have to pay more for it” than under previous contracts.

But Accuride torpedoed the election by mailing to each locked-out worker a packet stating that Accuride intended to give priority to workers in two job classifications (skilled technicians and lab technicians). Thus members would not be called back by seniority.

Just to drive the point home, the names of the union members who would — and would not — most likely be able to return were listed. Those recalled would work side by side with the temporary “replacement workers” and line crossers and warned members could be fired for using the word “scab.”

This unusual move of contacting workers at home, Priest commented, “tells me that for whatever reason they have, they do not want people represented by the UAW back in that plant.” Given this situation, he called off the vote.

The UAW International advised Priest they would file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging Accuride with “interfering with union activities.” But Accuride’s actions did not cause the UAW International to continue strike benefits.

On January 14, the day before the cutoff, three demonstrations in support of Local 2036 took place. About 100 UAW members — including members of UAW Solidarity Coalition and UAW Concerned — and labor activists demonstrated in front of Solidarity House, while informational pickets passed out leaflets at the Kentucky Ford Truck plant and at the GM Truck plant in Janesville, WI.

During the picket at Solidarity House, Jan Austin, a member of UAW Local 594 in Pontiac, MI, asked UAW officials and staffers going through the gate to donate to the locked-out workers. Most contributed.

Two weeks later — on January 26 — the local voted the contract down one more time. This time the vote was 170-87. Bill Priest told the local reporter “I think a lot of the change this time was because a lot of people are afraid the UAW is going to pull out on them and they thought it would be better to work under those conditions than have the UAW pull out on them.”

By mid-February the UAW and Accuride scheduled negotiating sessions in which Bill Priest has two counterproposals: that if the contract is approved, workers be recalled by seniority and a modification of the company’s vacation policy (which would require workers to accumulate 1,900 hours of work each year to qualify) at a time when the company is talking about 32-hour work weeks.

Why the Betrayal?

With over $900 million in the UAW strike fund, why cut off the benefits of the locked-out Local 2036 members? Although the local has never received a response to this question, the scuttlebutt is that the members are “troublemakers.”

One rumor was that they were presumptuous enough to demand the same contract as the UAW members have in the Big Three, another that they “didn’t want to work,” still another that they were Klu Klux Klaners. It seems as if any slander is acceptable to hurl against locked-out workers whose only crime is voting down a lousy contract and expecting some solidarity.

The slander also scares away potential support both inside the UAW — where most locals are afraid to back Local 2036 when the national leadership so actively opposes them — and among organizations like Jobs with Justice, who feel they have no mandate to “get involved” in “internal” union politics.

In fact, Local 2036’s supporters have come from groups that combine both union militancy against the employer with a stress on internal union democracy.

There is one more explanation about why Local 2036 members are “troublemakers.” Clever anti-union companies facing UAW organizing drives in the South tell their employees about Local 2036. The moral of their story is: The UAW only wants your dues money; when the going gets tough you may find yourselves abandoned just like the locked-out Accuride workers.

It’s a disgrace that anti-union employers can point to the example of Local 2036 — but that’s not the fault of its members, who have stood their ground against a vicious employer.

UAW Suicide

In the year before the strike was declared, former Local 2036 president Billy Robinson worked to get pro-union workers into the new Toyota plant in Princeton, Indiana.

“Everybody in that part of the country had heard me tell how great the UAW was, how democratic the process was in the UAW. The people turned around and looked at me and said, `What happened?’

“But there was one thing that I knew from my experience in being a president, and being an organizer, and being a union member. I firmly believe the tenet that when anybody reaches out for help, the unions need to be there. That’s what unions are for. During the organizing drives, I would tell people, `What is the union? You are.’”

Crippled by a four-year lockout without UAW support to force Accuride into settling and relatively isolated by slanderous charges, Local 2036 members now fear that the UAW International will move to withdraw the local’s charter on the basis that members have shown no interest in negotiating with Accuride or continuing as a union.

The UAW conventions will be coming up this June, and Ron Gettlefinger is the Administration Caucus’ candidate to succeed Yokich. It would be inconvenient if Local 2036 members were still around, reminding people about unfinished struggles.

For further information, or to send donations, contact the Henderson Workers Solidarity Fund, c/o Billy Robinson, P.O. Box 248, Sebree, KY 42455; email or call 270-835-2111.

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)