Livingston & McLean County Labor
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  • McLean County Labor History: 1980 - today
    Posted On: Sep 03, 2014
    UAW workers at Mitsubishi Motors kept a strong industrial union presence in the 21st century.

    Public employees also began organizing unions. Normal Fire Fighters endured 42 days in jail in 1978, eventually winning a contract from the Town of Normal after a 56 day strike. Support for this action helped galvanize and revive local labor solidarity. After Illinois legalized public employee collective bargaining in 1983, new locals were organized by Laborers 362, the Illinois Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

    While these workers were organizing, industrial workers in traditional industries faced difficult times. Modine closed its doors in 1984. General Electric began to shift production from Bloomington to Puerto Rico, diminishing its local workforce from over 1,000 to less than 400. Eureka-Williams, now the Eureka Company, was acquired by A.B. Elextrolux of Stockholm, Sweden in 1974. Eureka began to shift some production to new facilities in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Beich Candy Company was purchased by Swiss food giant Nestle in 1984. These economic changes, consistent with the economic globalization many U.S. workers were facing, brought hard challenges to local workers.

    Both Eureka and Nestle-Beich workers struck in the spring of 1988 over concessionary contract issues. The Eureka workers fared better than their candy-making counterparts, but both accepted concessions.

    Eureka workers accepted a new contract in 1982 without a dispute, but shortly after their contract ratification 335 workers were laid-off. Over 1,000 workers struck on February 1, 1988 after rejecting the company's final offer 966-16. The strike authorization vote was 939-30. Workers objected to company changes in sick leave policy, insurance coverage and job restrictions. Originally the company only offered wage increases based on cost-of-living (Haake, D1).

    On February 19 police were called to the plant as over 200 union supporters circled the factory in automobiles. Office workers complained of pickets hitting their cars with signs and fists. Pickets also claimed there were hit by cars. Alice Crose, a plant worker, was arrested for disobeying a police officer when she walked in front of cars leaving the plant (Gilfand, A2).

    On March 8 the workers rejected, 633-408, a second offer from the company, which included a 20 cent raise over three years, plus the cost-of-living increases promised in the company's first offer. Changes in health insurance remained in the company's proposal (McKinney, D1). The next day the company announced it would begin hiring replacement workers.

    Two days later Nestle-Beich workers walked out, after the company refused their offer to extend their contract for 30-days. The company wanted an agreement that the four unions at the plant would no longer honor each other's picket lines, that workers would take vacations during the company shutdowns in July, workers would pay a higher co-pay on insurance, and the firm wanted an agreement that any worker winning a grievance would be allowed to work to "make up the time," rather than receive a settlement.

    On March 12 it was announced that the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a presidential candidate, would speak to a workers' rally on August 14. America OTR workers were also threatening to strike, trying to win a first contract with their new employer. That evening Lodge 1000 members voted to end their strike, 895-89, and accept the newest negotiated offer. The new contract maintained job classifications and medical restrictions, with workers receiving ten cents the first year and five cents the next two years of the contract. Increased disability pay, life insurance and pension contributions were also negotiated. The workers did accept a concession which required a larger co-payment by family members using the insurance (Myers, 2).

    Two nights later, the night before the Illinois presidential primary, Jesse Jackson addressed over 1,000 supporters at the Machinists Hall. The Rubber Workers' Larry Newsom, Bakery Workers' Mary Becker and Machinists' Donna Gaston and Coleman Smith all updated the crowd on their respective struggle. Hispanic farmworkers Juan Viegas, representing mushroom workers at Princeton Farms in Princeton, Illinois, talked about their situation, along with Gloria Carmona of Onarga, Illinois. Laborers 362 business agent and McLean County Democratic chair John Penn introduced Jackson, who urged the strikers to stand together. He condemned the current economic situation as "reverse Robin Hood," stealing from the rich to give to the poor (Matejka, 1).

    Julie Clemons, a Nestle line worker and union steward, said the strike was her first serious labor action:

    I was a steward, but I wasn't a steward for very long. I had to make sure everybody was in their places, I had to call people and tell them when their (picket) duty was. And I had never been involved in any strikes. You know, you hear about Caterpillar going out on strike, or about people losing their jobs down in Tennessee, but I didn't know what that was. I had no idea. To be in it first hand was quite an experience. We had snow. It was really cold and we had, sheds were donated, and the doughnut places brought doughnuts in the morning and the Machinist Hall brought food over and they opened up their hall. It was really wonderful to see people give to help us along on the strike (Clemons).

    The BC&T settled their strike with Nestle-Beich seven weeks later. The union won a better seniority system and retained the right to schedule their own vacations after they acquired three weeks of vacation time. The grievance procedure was maintained, but the union agreed they would no longer honor other pickets if their contract was in force. Dan Simmons, the BC&T local's business agent, commented, "We didn't gain, we maintained. It's not the best contract in the world, but how long can you stay out on the streets? We're not dealing with Beich's any more, we're dealing with a corporation." The workers remained on the picket line another month, as Lodge 1000 still had not settled its contract with Nestle for machine repair and maintenance men in the plant (Matejka, 1).

    If industrial workers had hung on through concessionary demands in 1988, Eureka workers faced demands in 1990 that began a downward trend in their employment status. In March 1990 the company demanded a $3 an hour wage concession from union workers, along with an end to cost-of-living increases. The workers asked for guarantees on their jobs if they accepted the concessions, but none were offered. The workers rejected the concessions and Eureka announced the upright vacuum cleaner production would end in Bloomington. That production was moved to Juarez, Mexico and its twin plant in El Paso, Texas. 200 jobs were lost in the move; in the next few years another 300 jobs were lost locally. In December 1990 the remaining 600 workers accepted three-year contract that included a wage freeze but maintained cost-of-living increases, higher pension contributions and a new health insurance plan (Flick, A2).

    In 1999 Eureka announced the end of all Bloomington production and the remaining 365 union workers were laid-off, accepting a severance package from the company right before Labor Day.

    Despite setbacks and layoffs at Eureka and General Electric, industrial employment remained steady in the area, thanks to Diamond-Star Motors' 1986 location in Bloomington-Normal. Workers quickly organized with the United Auto Workers, forming Local 2488. The company, jointly owned by Chrysler and Mitsubishi at the time, did not contest the union organization.

    In 1985, as part of its decision to locate in Bloomington-Normal, Diamond-Star Motors watched as local construction unions signed a construction agreement with general contractor Kajima International. In exchange for some concessions, particularly shifting from an 8-hour day to a 10-hour, four day week, the contractor agreed to only employ union signatory contractors. The unions also agreed to a no-strike, no lock-out clause within the agreement. The $680 million project created almost 1,000 construction jobs.

    Don Shelby was one of the first workers hired at the new auto plant. He was sent by the company to Japan to learn their techniques and machine maintenance requirements. He said the biggest obstacle to union organizing was workers aspiring to supervisor status who were afraid of turning the company against them.

    The company didn't fight the organizing. There was always some who thought that, No, I want to be a boss and you're messing everything up.' It didn't take them long before they realized, I didn't get this job and this isn't exactly what they're telling us it's supposed to be.' It's not as rosy a picture. They finally realized we got nothing and got organized (Shelby).

    Julie Clemons, who left Nestle-Beich right after the 1988 strike to work for the automaker, soon realized why workers were talking about union representation:

    It was devastating, absolutely devastating, to walk from this little building that you knew everybody to this huge car plant. They put me in the paint shop and I swear to you, I thought they went to Sears and bought paint. I had absolutely no idea, you walked in and it looked like Disney World, with all these shuttles and everything going all over the place. It was just very overpowering.

    There was no union, no word about it, but that was okay with me. I didn't have a problem with it. They gave me a handbook ...and they told me all these promises. Open door policy, nobody has any walls,...you could look into the head Diamond-Star person's eyes at any time you want, we all eat together, we all park together, we all wear the same uniform, it's going to be a big, happy family. Cool. This is Shangri-La in a nut.

    ...Then it changed soon after you were on the floor. There was no family, I'd have no say anymore, because everybody's out there by themselves.

    (Co-worker Sy Knuffman) ...got me, bringing me union propaganda, how the unions are going to help me. But I'm getting closer to Caterpillar because I'm now at an automotive plant, Caterpillar's always on strike. ...And I don't want to be on strike, I don't want to sit at home with a hundred dollars a week. I can do this without a union and make ten bucks an hour. They're giving us raises all the time, they company's not that bad.

    ...Sy kept on me about You need to go, you need to go listen to them (the union representatives).' I would ask questions over and over again, just to make sure that I was understanding the answer and making sure that he wasn't side-stepping my question. ...That's why I started coming to more meetings, and I started asking a bunch of questions, talking about it to my friend Sy and other people. It just seemed like the right move for us, so then I began actively campaigning to fight for the union, to vote yes to have a union in the plant (Clemons).

    Clemons eventually became UAW Local 2488's first elected financial officer and helped bargain the first contract with the company, which was signed on August 28, 1989. The new union's first controversy was decided a shift system. Diamond-Star had rotated production workers between shifts but ceded the right to decide a system to the union. After prolonged negotiation a shift system was established, but it caused hard feelings, especially amongst members who were permanently put on a secondary shift. The union argued that shift placement should be seniority-based, traditional in many union contracts (McKinney).

    In 1992 workers negotiated a second contract, which boosted production workers from $14.71 an hour to $17 over three years. In 1995 Diamond-Star officially became Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing and a third contract was approved, but only by a slim margin, as workers were upset over forced overtime. The union and company's fourth contract was approved in August 1998, but only hours before the previous contract expired, with workers having taken a strike vote and ready to walk if there was not a settlement.

    A workplace issue that brought national attention to the plant was allegations of sexual harassment, beginning in December 1994. A group of 26 women workers filed suit against the company, which triggered a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study. Eventually the company paid fines and settled with both the women who sued as a group and the federal government. The harassment charges cast a pall over the company and the local union; at the union's request, the firm held intensive sexual harassment training sessions with all employees and the firm instituted a zero-tolerance policy.

    Company executive Larry Green felt the company "learned a lot" from its experience with the lawsuits, saying that "No one likes to have that kind of broad brush taint that we had and that the community had. ...It brought a lot of the team even closer in the sense that we got the support of our people and we did wheat had to do (Green)."

    Don Shelby, as a union officer, related the hostile reaction he got from a male member after a woman member complained:

    We had an instance on the floor, where the woman called up and complained to me. She didn't know what to do, this one guy was bothering her, calling her. This was early, it was 91, February. Well, what do you want to do?' She said, I just want it to stop.' ...I said, I'll take care of it.' I think she was going to leave the company. I said, I'm glad you called me first, at least give me a shot to try.' ...We got one (male) in the QC area, and he just reamed my ass, I'll call the company, you pulled me off the line.' All I'm trying to tell you is that you better watch it.' He was mad because I was accusing him of doing something. No fellow, I ain't accusing you of doing nothing. All I'm telling you is knock it off because if by chance you're saying something to any of these women, you'd better stop.' I said, You're at the point now where if it continues, they'll fire you.' And the guy got upset. No, don't get mad, I'm trying to save your job. If you don't want to listen to me, that's up to you. I'm telling you, it's got to stop if anything is going on.'

    ...I waited later, I called her up at home and I talked to her. I hope it did something, if not, you'll have to go to the company. ...Call me back in a couple of days, see how it goes, let me know.' ...She called back, said he did lay off some of the talk. He's still loud and he just don't like women working here, I guess. If he keeps up any problems,' I said, get the rep and he'll get him out of the company.' ...That was the only instance I had with a woman having problem (Shelby).

    Julie Clemons saw harassment on a regular basis and felt it often went too far:

    I saw it every day. I guess I never felt that I was being harassed to the point that I would have to go to the lengths that these women went to. But if these 29 original women were harassed as bad as they say they were, then they deserve every dime that they got. Yes, there was harassment in the plant. There were signs put on women's lockers that said, you're a fat pig,' or you're a Twinkie,' they made fun of people constantly and the supervisors let it go. ...

    I think that some people really went too far and offended many women in the plant and those women deserve everything that they got (Clemons).

    Clemons noted that when she worked at Beich Candy she also experienced and witnessed harassment. However, because the society was not as conscious of the issue during that time period, nothing was said. Despite the harassment problems, Clemons was still proud of her job and the company's product:

    I like the camaraderie of working with people in my job at Mitsubishi. There are some things that I do by myself, but it really is a joint effort. You know, we make beautiful cars and it's nice seeing what you've made appear before your eyes. I enjoy it.

    ...My neighbors, they look down at me because I work at Mitsubishi and then when they find out that I chose to work in the factory, they find that strange. I often think they look down on me because I'm nothing more than a factory worker. But I like myself, I like the fact that I'm a factory worker. My husband likes me and he likes the fact that I'm a factory worker and my children are not embarrassed because I'm a factory worker. ...My family gets to reap the benefits of the things that I have received from being part of the UAW. ...My husband doesn't have the health care coverage that I have. ...Mine's a negotiated benefit. ...The people at State Farm, they can lose their job tomorrow and I can't because I have a contract that guarantees I have a job. ...I know how much money I'm going to be making, I know what my insurance benefits are, I know how much I can put into my retirement. ...And you don't have that without a union (Clemons).

    Workers like Julie Clemons show what a union contract can mean for a worker's security and well-being. A negotiated contract gives employees a voice in their workplace and a process to maintain their dignity, express their concerns and negotiate their working conditions, wages, benefits and health and safety.

    Even non-union workers benefit because unionized workers' gains usually translate into better conditions for supervisors and managers. They also set a standard that other non-union enterprises often try to match to maintain committed workers.

    Although there are dramatic strikes and confrontations in McLean County's industrial history, the majority of union activity is more mundane. Solving workplace problems on a daily basis and acting as a conduit between the workforce and management rarely results in headlines, but this is the real story of union activity. Settling grievances and complaints, insuring safety and cooling hot heads are all part of union activity. Individuals who rose through the ranks to union leadership, whether they did so for altruistic, ideological or personal reasons, helped insure that McLean County workers received a fair share for their labor's reward.

    Plus workers developed class solidarity. Although they lost their strike, the 1922 rail shop workers held a united front, drawing a line to maintain their conditions. This solidarity expressed itself over the generations not only on picket lines, but in workers marching proudly together on Labor Day or turning out to elect union members to local political office.

    The other side of McLean's labor relations story is one of cooperation, not conflict. Workers and their unions did not always fight management or corporate owners. When a clear common interest was seen, workers and management cooperated. Thus apprenticeship programs were developed which involved both sides in training and skills upgrading. Union representatives are part of the Economic Development Council, which attracts and retains jobs to the area. Community charities that benefit all segments draw on labor's support, leadership and involvement as an important component.

    The rough industrial conditions that railroad workers and other 19th century employees faced are quite different today. Safety training and equipment had greatly reduced the death and accident toll; laborers' children complete school along and are not sent automatically shunted off to the workshop; fair wages and benefits transformed many workers' status and allowed home ownership, vacations and auto purchases. Working class families have integrated themselves throughout the community.

    Writing in 1908 on the purpose of trade unions, Bloomington's John B. Lennon wrote:

    Out of the association in the trade union has come, not only increased wages and reduced hours of labor, factory inspection, mine inspection, mechanics' lien laws, and many things of this character, but there has come into the world a new political and social economy, having to do with the welfare and progress of the human race; for no organization that deals with the upbuilding of the world's workers, and the accomplishment of results in that direction, can fail of being a potent factor in promoting the advancement of all mankind.

    ...So long as there are industrial wrongs to be righted, and burdens to be lifted from the wage workers that they unjustly carry, there will be work for the trade union movement (Lennon, 891).


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