Wisconsin union members speak on recent increases in strikes and labor organizing
What is it like to be on strike?
That used to be a very common question in the U.S., as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 470 major work stoppages in 1952. By 1980, that number had dropped to 187. There were just 16 major strikes last year, which was double the amount in 2020. Think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute argue there were many more work stoppages at smaller companies last year that the Labor Department didn't monitor.
Right now, the biggest strike in the U.S. involves about 1,200 United Auto Workers members in Racine County and Burlington, Iowa, who walked off their jobs at Case New Holland or CNH on May 2nd in protest over a potential new contract.
Last Friday, as striking workers gathered outside UAW Local 180 in Mount Pleasant, waiting for a rally with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, some were willing to answer the—what is a strike like—question.
Machinist Mark Otto has worked at the Case-IH plant along Highway 11 in Sturtevant for 11 years. His latest assignment was making components for wheel axles used on farm tractors, fertilizer spreaders and combines.
Otto says being on strike for more than seven weeks is hard. "Absolutely. Just making ends meet and had some car-vehicle issues for a week and a half. I had no vehicle."
Otto says it's helped that the UAW is providing strike benefits, which are now up to $400 per week. He says he understands why there have been more labor disputes and union organizing attempts in the last couple of years.
"It's because people are fed up. They've had enough, you know. And if we don't, what's going to happen? I mean, if there's no middle class, what the very wealthy have to offer isn't going to be able to be used or purchased in any way, " Otto says.
Another machinist on strike at CNH, Joshua Launderville, has worked there for seven years. Launderville is a father of four and says one of his main concerns is the company's use of forced overtime.
"Not being able to see my family on a regular basis because I don't know whether I'm on overtime or not until the last minute. Two [days] on, one-off is not enough to see my kids. The day off I get is basically recuperation and household maintenance," Launderville says.
Launderville says relatively low pay is also a concern.
Joshua's spouse, Ashley Launderville, has worked at CNH for nearly two years assembling transmissions for CNH-produced combines. She says she's developed shoulder problems from repeatedly using an impact gun to torque down bolts.
Her take on the increase in workers taking action:
"Well, a lot of people see that companies are making billions of dollars on their backs, handing out huge bonuses to CEOs and people in the corporate offices. Shareholders—paying them out. Meanwhile, we're all over here figuring out how we're going to get to work, praying to God we don't hit E [empty on gas] before we get our check," Launderville said, also noting that gas prices remain about five dollars per gallon.
According to the letter Sen. Bernie Sanders, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and others sent to CNH CEO Scott Wine this month, Wine received a $9 million signing bonus with the global company and $22 million in total one-year compensation.
The company has not responded to WUWM's request for comment but told the media it is committed to resolving the labor dispute through collective bargaining. CNH also says it presented the UAW with an all-encompassing, comprehensive document last month.
The union says the pay raises in the offer don't account for inflation and would largely be wiped out by a pricier health insurance plan.
UAW Local 180 President Yasin Mahdi says he doesn't know when he and the company will be back at the bargaining table. "You know, we'll have to call a psychic and figure out when the next negotiation session will be."
At a time when —what's on the minds of some working people— it is just to be treated fairly.