ROCKFORD A strike by 150 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 600A has entered its fourth week today at a Wolverine Worldwide tannery in Rockford. The workers are on strike after six weeks of negotiations over a new contract broke down between the union and Wolverine Worldwide.
Members of UFCW Local 600A are seeking improvements in their pension program, specifically a raise in the years of service cap, as well as the removal of language in the contract that threatens local jobs. The disputed language contains provisions that would allow sub-contracting of work to other facilities, including moving production out of the country.
The possibility of moving production is a real concern for workers at the Wolverine tannery in Rockford, as only 10% of Wolverines shoes are made in the United States. This is consistent with the industry-wide trend towards moving production to Asia, where US companies are able to use sub-contractors who can significantly cut the costs of production by utilizing labor that is paid far less than unionized workers in the United States. In some Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, workers in the footwear industry are paid less than a dollar per day. The conditions in many Asian footwear factories are deplorablevarious non-governmental organizations have documented unsafe working environments caused by exposure to dust and toxic chemicals, child labor, intimidation and murder of union organizers, physical, verbal, and sexual harassment of workers, and poverty wages. Over the past twenty years, the Asian output of footwear has grown by 424% while the United States has grown only by 16%.
The growth of neoliberal globalization over the past 50 years has been the driving force in the shift towards foreign production. Neoliberalism emphasizes profit as the only goal, disregarding other concerns such as labor standards, environmental protections, and human rights. Its chief proponents argue that profit can only be attained through aggressive application of market principles to the world via international trade and investment agreements. The manufacturing practices of the footwear industry epitomize many of the core tenants of neoliberalisma shift of wealth from the bottom of society to the top (paying non-western workers low wages while profit goes to western employees), the pursuit of profit above all other concerns (Structural Adjustment Programs by the International Monetary Fund have conditions that eliminate environmental and labor protections in many countries), and the privatization of government functions and structuring of government to benefit the private sector (restrictive laws against organized labor. Many leading companies such as Nike, have moved production after discovering the immense profits that can be made when they do not need to worry about organized labor, environmental standards, and paying decent wages.
Many of the striking workers do not understand why Wolverine needs the option to move production overseas, as the company had profits of 47.9 million dollars on sales of 827.1 million dollars in 2002. The company also recently acquired Sebago Inc., a purchase that will increase Wolverines sales by 30 million dollars. Sebago adds to Wolverines existing umbrella of brands, which includes Bates Uniform Footwear, Caterpillar Footwear, Harley-Davidson Footwear, Hush Puppies, Merrell, Stanley Footgear, and Wolverine Boots and Shoes.
Recent events seem to indicate that the strike will be a long one. In a statement by Wolverine spokesperson Tom Mundt, Wolverine said that while we respect the union members right to go on strike, we will take whatever legal actions are necessary to honor our commitments to our customers and maintain a viable business, a statement that apparently means they will hire replacements for the striking workers. Over the weekend of July 26, advertisements appeared in local newspapers for jobs at Wolverine and the company announced their intent to hire replacements on July 29, despite previous statements that suggested they would not take such a step without first consulting the union.
Last week Tuesday, the union filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Wolverine, claiming that Wolverine has threatened striking workers with the loss of jobs if they do not return to work in addition to making attempts to bargain with workers directly without the union. The union has alleged that Wolverines offers outside of union negotiations have offered more than what was in Wolverines final offer to the union on July 17. However, decisions at the NLRB can take months and it will likely be quite some time before a decision is reached. In the interim, the strike and the picket line outside of the Wolverine tannery will continue.