Euro-Trashing American Workers

The industries and nationalities differ, but the tactics remain the same.  European companies that wouldn’t dream of pulling similar stunts in their home countries have found they can treat American workers as shabbily as American companies treat Third World workers, yet never have to worry about any public relations backlash.

Take, for example, the French-owned multinational Roquette Freres.  Twenty years ago, Roquette opened a milling plant in the town of Keokuk, Iowa, lured there by the generous promise of tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and other financial benefits.  The community leaders desperately needed the industry, and Roquette was more than happy to put down roots.

But last September, things turned ugly when Roquette put a gun to the head of the 240 members of BCTGM (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers) Local 48 G and told them that unless they accepted what amounted to the evisceration of their current contract, they would be locked-out.

Roquette’s “last, best and final” offer to the union was an insult.  It included a $4 per hour pay cut, total license to use temp workers in place of full-time employees, elimination of sick, maternity and personal leaves, elimination of the pension plan, and drastic increases in health care premiums.  All jammed down the union’s throat.

Needless to say, if Roquette had dared used a similar power-play in France, they would have a public relations nightmare on their hands?not to mention a possible riot.  But noting that the U.S. has neither the strict labor laws nor the grudging but deep-seated pro-union sentiment France has, Roquette believes it can get away with any anti-union muscle tactics it likes.  And, apparently, it can.

Unfortunately, because Local 48 G couldn’t possibly sign so inferior an agreement, the union membership has been locked out since September, 2010.  The union’s good faith offer to continue working while negotiating was summarily turned down by the company.  Clearly, Roquette had already made its mind up; they were either going to humiliate the union by forcing it to capitulate, or destroy the Local outright, through attrition.

Some months ago I interviewed by telephone Local 48 G’s president, Steve Underwood, and reported in CounterPunch that, although he and his fellow members were bitterly disappointed and frustrated, they were hanging in there as best they could?despite being out of work during the holidays, which made for a bleak Christmas.  As of this writing, Local 48 G is still locked out.  It’s been almost 10 months.

Another example of European opportunism occurred in Washington, D.C., practically in the shadow of the Capitol Dome.  A German-based company (Jamestown Properties, with headquarters in Cologne) purchased the landmark Madison Hotel in the nation’s capital, and, after taking over, on January 19, 2011, proceeded to mount a frontal assault on its workforce.

The company boldly announced, on January 31, that it had 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 second thoughts. The decision was unilateral and final.  They pull a stunt like that in Germany?with their labor laws?and the company executives go to jail.

And then there’s Ikea’s Danville, Virginia, manufacturing plant.  It was only three years ago that state and local officials offered the high-profile Swedish company $12 million dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to lure it to Virginia.  For Danville, it seemed like the economic coup of the century:  a tiny, backwater, industry-starved community manages to attract a renowned corporation like Ikea.

Then, alas, catastrophe struck.  Ikea’s Danville plant turned into a Scandinavian version of a modern day sweatshop.  When the IAM (International Association of Machinists) made a run at unionizing the facility, Ikea went into an hysterical defensive posture, actually hiring the law firm of Jackson Lewis, an aggressive, anti-labor outfit that specializes in keeping unions out.  And that NEVER would have happened back home in Sweden.

Of course, without a union to protect the employees, Ikea-Danville quickly began doing what many non-union shops are fond of doing.  They established draconian, top-down work rules, whereby they unilaterally altered seniority, forced people to work overtime without advance notice, and arbitrarily lowered the starting hourly wage from $9.75 per hour to $8.00 per hour (the federal minimum is $7.25).

Again, none of these aforementioned hardball tactics would be employed in Europe?.which is why these corporations are relocating here.  As conservative as the European Right can be, you don’t hear right-wing politicians publicly advocating the actual elimination of labor unions and the abolition of the federal minimum wage.  Even the European Right would view such extreme positions as nutty.

But you do hear those suggestions being made in the U.S.  And you don’t just hear them from some fringe commentator ranting on a low-frequency Mojave Desert radio station.  You hear them from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

Limited Time Special Offer!
Get CounterPunch Print Edition By Email for Only $25 a Year!

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring