First you had a French company, Roquette Freres, announcing to its Keokuk, Iowa, employees that management had decided to unilaterally cut benefits and slash wages by $4 per hours, despite the fact that its Keokuk corn milling plant was profitable and its workers loyal and efficient.
When the BCTGM (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers) Local 48G’s 240 members balked at what they saw as plain, old-fashioned extortion, the immediately company locked them out. No talking, no compromising, no willingness to move. They locked the doors on them.
I’ve corresponded by telephone and e-mail with Local 48G’s intrepid president, Steve Underwood, and while the stress level in Keokuk is understandably sky-high, Steve and his fellow members continue to hang in there—which is remarkable when you consider that these good people have been on the street since September 28, 2010.
Unfortunately, the scabs that Roquette Freres hired as replacement workers are now doing the very jobs that these union members developed and had been competently performing since the plant opened its doors, some 20 years ago.
Summarizing: A French company moves to the Great Midwest—to Iowa, right smack in the middle of America’s heartland—and after setting up shop and getting the lay of the land, proceeds to assault the workers by putting a gun their heads and issuing an ultimatum: Accept this contract or be prepared to lose your jobs. It doesn’t get much more basic than that.
So much for France. Now let’s do Germany. A German-based company (Jamestown Properties, with headquarters in Cologne) purchases the landmark Madison Hotel in Washington D.C.—right smack in the middle of the nation’s capital, home to its monuments and hallowed institutions, the seat of American government—and, after taking over, on January 19, 2011, proceeds to assault its workforce.
The company announces, on January 31, that it has decided not only to refuse to recognize the existing contract between the previous owners and UNITE-HERE, the union representing 150 workers, but to more or less “fire” everybody and require them to re-apply for their jobs. Simple as that. No talking, no compromising, no willingness to move. The decision was unilateral and final. And it was done in the shadow of the Capitol Dome
Of course the irony here is staggering. Indeed, if it weren’t so tragic, it would be comical. As U.S. companies scan the globe for Third World workers willing to assemble products for near slave labor wages, European companies move to the U.S. because they know they can pull stunts here that they could never get away with at home.
And why couldn’t they get away with this stuff at home? Answer: Because there is too much muscle resisting them….muscle in the form of federal labor laws and muscle in the form of union credibility. Not only do France and Germany have stronger labor laws than ours, they have a significantly larger proportion of unionized workers, and these workers are more respected by the public and more militant than ours.
The U.S. and Europe are engaged is a sort of economic danse macabre, with us looking to the Third World because their labor laws are weak and inviting, and Europe looking at us….for the exact same reasons. Welcome to America, folks, where everything’s for sale, including workers’ dignity.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org