Strike Continues at Wolverine Worldwide Tannery in Rockford

The latest updates from the ongoing strike at the Wolverine Worldwide tannery in Rockford, MI.

ROCKFORD, MICHIGAN — 150 employees at a Wolverine Worldwide tannery are still on strike in Rockford, with no talks currently planned between the union representing the striking employees (United Food and Commercial Workers -UFCW) and Wolverine Worldwide. Today is the 37th day in which the workers have been on strike.

The most recent updates on the strike:

  • On August 15, many of the striking union members picketed a Spartan Stores board meeting in Grand Rapids. Wolverine’s CEO is also on the Spartan board and the strikers wanted to take there message to a greater audience than what they reach by picketing outside the Wolverine tannery. This rally was supported by a number of other labor unions that also sent representatives to the picket.
  • A food pantry has been setup in Rockford to provide assistance to those who are on strike. Union members are receiving $100 in weekly union strike pay, down from their normal salary of approximately $560 per week.
  • Wolverine Worldwide has announced that they have received applications from 600 people who are willing to work as replacements. The company has also accused union members of threatening some of the people crossing the picket line.
  • This past Thursday, 200 union members and supporters held a march through Rockford and a rally in order to raise awareness about the strike.
  • The union’s allegations of unfair labor practices are still pending before the National Labor Relations Board.

For background information on the strike, please consult an earlier Michigan IMC article, Strike at Wolverine Worldwide Tannery Enters Fourth Week in Rockford.

Strike at Wolverine Worldwide Tannery Enters Fourth Week in Rockford

A strike by workers at a Wolverine Worldwide tannery in Rockford, Michigan has entered its fourth week as the workers continue to picket the company for a contract that has better pension protection and keeps jobs in Rockford.

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 Wolverine’s 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 deplorable—various 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 neoliberalism—a 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 Wolverine’s sales by 30 million dollars. Sebago adds to Wolverine’s 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 Wolverine’s offers outside of union negotiations have offered more than what was in Wolverine’s “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.

Students Against Sweatshops GVSU Escalates Campaign Aimed at Taco Bell

Beginning on Monday, March 10th, Students Against Sweatshops GVSU will be undertaking an intensive campaign designed to remove Taco Bell from the Grand Valley State University campus in response to Taco Bell’s support of sweatshop labor. For the past year and a half the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) have been working together on a campaign designed to achieve improved working conditions and wages for workers who pick tomatoes for Six L’s Packing Inc., who sells tomatoes to Taco Bell. However, Taco Bell has refused to meet with workers to discuss wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

On March 5th, in front of Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, CA, fifty tomato pickers and activists ended a ten-day hunger strike protesting Taco Bell’s support for exploitive wages and working conditions. The hunger strike was part of an ongoing effort designed to force Taco Bell to meet with Six L’s and the workers that pick tomatoes for them. This was only the most recent event in the campaign, which has used a variety of tactics including meetings with university administrators, protests, forums, and many other events designed to get Taco Bell to use their power and influence to improve working conditions for tomato pickers both at Six L’s and across Florida.

The CIW represents tomato pickers who pick tomatoes for Six L’s Packing Inc., a company based in Immokalee, FL whose customers include Taco Bell. Tomato pickers across Florida earn between 40 to 50 cents for every 32lb. bucket of tomatoes they pick, while Six L’s pays only 40 cents–the same rate paid since 1978. At this rate, workers must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes in order to make $50 per day. Department of Labor statistics confirm the dire circumstances facing tomato workers–the median annual income of tomato pickers in Florida is only $7,500 per year. Moreover, tomato pickers do not receive health insurance, sick leave, paid holidays, and overtime pay; while they are not allowed to organize to improve their conditions. As a result, the CIW has called on Taco Bell, as the largest buyer of tomatoes grown in Florida, to use their power and influence to convene talks between Taco Bell, Six L’s, and the CIW; to immediately increase wages by raising the per pound rate paid for tomatoes; and to draft strict wage and working standards for all tomato suppliers used by Taco Bell.

SAS-GVSU is joining with hundreds of activists across the country who are responding to the workers’ calls for boycotts by working to “Boot the Bell”–forcing universities to cut their contracts with Taco Bell. Taco Bell has refused to meet with workers, ignoring letter a variety of different protests, petition drives, and letter writing campaigns. Consequently, activists are working to hurt Taco Bell economically, with activists and human rights supporters organizing campaigns to show that there will be no support for companies that purchase products made under abusive conditions. SAS-GVSU is working to join fourteen schools, including the University of Chicago, Duke University, and the University of San Francisco, who have already cut their contracts with Taco Bell.

Students Against Sweatshops GVSU was founded in the fall of 2000 and is active in the struggle against economic exploitation both in the United States and around the world. It regularly networks with community groups and labor unions in the West Michigan area working for economic and social justice.

Continue reading “Students Against Sweatshops GVSU Escalates Campaign Aimed at Taco Bell”

Labor History in Grand Rapids, Part I

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

In 1900 Grand Rapids was a bustling river town, not fully settled, but no longer frontier. The red light district was located in the river valley while the mansions of the wealthy overlooked the city from Heritage Hill.

Only seventeen years earlier, the last great log run swept away the railroad bridge near Ann Street. Crowds gathered along the banks of the Grand River to watch as thousands of white pine logs created a jam seven miles long and thirty feet deep. Perhaps this is why so many furniture factories started in the “valley city” — cheap wood, cheap water power, and cheap labor. Scattered along the river and throughout the city were 85 furniture and woodworking factories. Berkey and Gay, Widdicomb, American School Furniture Co. (American Seating), Sligh, Stickley Bros. and others were just then making this medium size city of 87,576 the furniture capital of the United States, a title it held until the Great Depression.

It was this cheap labor that bothered Thomas Kidd, secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union (est. 1895). Low Grand Rapids wages were depressing the earnings of his members.

If the union was to grow, Grand Rapids workers needed to be brought into the fold. Kidd made numerous speaking trips to the city passionately and eloquently presenting his case to the English, Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, and Lithuanian finishers, rubbers, cabinet makers, sanders, and machine hands who compromised the 7,000 workers of Furniture City, USA.

“The most foolish and silly thing the working men have done of late years is to allow themselves to be kept divided by the religious question. Who ever heard of a corporation, a trust, or a combination of any kind, of capitalists allowing any question foreign to the objects for which they are organized to enter into their consideration at all? Everything likely to create discord is wisely cast aside, and all keep their eye on the main thing — the dollar. That is what they are after.”

“All the institutions of the country are used against us, even our chump of a president, Grover Cleveland [enthusiastic applause] and our condition will never be improved with being a better Democrat or a better Republican. Is all this not enough without our quarreling over questions of faith and thus assisting the enemy to bind us still tighter? [Many of the Dutch were opposed to trade unions.] The working men of this country are gradually but surely getting behind those of other countries. I am a Scotsman and I never worked over eight hours per day, nor on Saturday afternoons until I cam to this progressive country.”

“The union label is the coming power, and it will do away with strikes. The wood workers have adopted a label and already a furniture manufacturer in Chicago is using it on all his furniture, and a Minneapolis manufacturer will at one begin using 22,000 labels a week, and there will be no more strikes there. Furniture without the label can easily be boycotted through the central bodies in other cities.”

“In comparison with other furniture localities, wages here are fairly good, but if the workers here remain unorganized it will only be a matter of time when the employers will have to cut you still lower in order to compete with furniture from other parts. Reason as you will, experience proves conclusively that you will never get better wages unless you organize. In Oshkosh and Marshfield, Wisconsin, wages were as low as five cents an hour before unions were organized in those places, and the men were working eight hours a day, forty cents a day! Just think of it. Do you want to come to that? If you do, continue to go it alone, each man for himself, and you will get it, just as sure as you live.”

Despite Kidd’s best efforts, Grand Rapids Local 46 and Spindle Carvers Local 84 never numbered more than 200 members. In March, the AWWIU held its national convention in Grand Rapids. If the workers would not come to the union, the union would come to them. As hosts, Local 46 and 84 hand made convention badges of “white maple veneer handsomely lettered and mounted.” Sixty-eight delegates attended the week long session.

Most were German immigrants with a few English, French, and Swedes thrown in. The constitution was amended and union policies debated. However, all was not work. Germans, being Germans, and definitely not following the temperance fashion of the times, attended a social session held for the delegates entertainment:

“When the social session opened at 9 p.m. the hall was crowded, over four hundred present. ‘Elk’s mil’ was the first order of business and after several trips of the white-aproned dispensers, the fun began.”

An invitation was sent by the delegates to the local furniture manufacturers inviting them to meet with the union’s officers to discuss the advantages of the union label. Sligh, Rettig & Sweet, and the Luce Company agreed to meet.

The appointed time came and went, but no furniture representatives.

Unwilling to was the evening, the AWWIU officers decided to take in a performance at the Powers Theater. And what should be playing but “Sappho,” a performance so risqué, with the actress who portrayed a Greek heroine baring her arms and feet, that it had been banned in New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

However, this was not the only thing laid bare that night. It seems the lure of culture was too strong for even upright, respectable businessmen, for there, seated in the crowded theater, were the errant furniture barons.

Epilogue

Kidd never did organize the furniture workers of Grand Rapids, despite his charismatic appeal and unceasing efforts. It would take another organizer and another union to lead Grand Rapids furniture workers in the Great 1911 Furniture Strike.