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100 Days

The strike at the Kohler plant in Searcy, Arkansas has hit 100 days, and according to the Daily Citizen, a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been filed by the union. (Future of the Union has the AP story.) Neither is good news for the Kohler workers. The NLRB’s gutting of labor law under the Bush administration has been well documented. It’s unlikely that the union will get even a fair hearing from the NLRB, much less a favorable one. Moreover, without community support for the strike, time will continue to work in management’s favor, allowing the continued hiring of scabs to slowly kill the union.

I don’t bring up the question of community support lightly. From what I can tell (and living in Iowa means what I can tell is limited), Searcy has been deaf to the strike. Not only has the mayor been, at best, apathetic, but also the local paper has been more interested in publishing weekly Bible studies than in bringing anything more than the most superficial attention to the fate of more than 200 workers or, for that matter, an important local business. The story that ran yesterday, like the stories that ran in January, ran most likely because of a public relations announcement by the union. Is it really that difficult to send a reporter to follow up on each side’s claims, or for that matter to write editorials that lament the breakdown of negotiations? Others have noticed the Daily Citizen‘s silence. Dennis Sheffield, Kohler employee and UAW member from Wisconsin, writing in January on the paper’s guestbook, asked for more coverage:

Can you please run more information on the Kohler strike? Those of us in Wisconsin are following best we can and supporting our Union brothers and sisters in their effort to improve their quality of life. We are also looking for information on the progress, or lack thereof, of any ongoing negotiations. Our contract with Kohler is also up this year and seeing where Searcy goes and how successful they are in getting increases is of great importance to us in Wisconsin who work at the main plant in Kohler.

Compared to silence, even diligent reporting—it doesn’t have to be award-winning, investigative stuff—that asks prudent questions and recognizes that good information matters well beyond the county line would be a good step. It might also goad the parties back to the negotiating table, which is good for all involved. Silence does nothing but support stalemate.

The paper’s silence is echoed online. There are few bloggers in Searcy and fewer still who write about labor or in support of the union. The prevailing sentiment, if there is even enough commentary to call it a “prevailing sentiment,” is to advise the union to shut up and be happy the jobs haven’t yet been sent further south. That’s what ME’s commenters said when he wrote about the strike in December; KStewDawg said the same:

So now the Kohler workers go on strike, and 231 people are standing on the side of the road instead of earning money. I give Kohler two weeks or so before they announce that they are relocating operations to some other place, probably China or Mexico. They had trouble with this same union back in the spring and gave up $1.3 million in concessions. That’s not going to happen again. How can these people not realize that they are expendable? They are lucky to have decent paying jobs in this town. Kohler can train someone else to make a stainless steel sink for half the money somewhere else.

I understand that unions had their place back in the twentieth century. Not anymore.

Needless to say, KStewDawg’s not labor friendly. He’s also wrong, especially about the need for unions today. There has never been a more necessary time for workers to organize to insist that corporations treat them fairly. Unions help ensure everything from safe conditions to fair wages, and if companies think they can run away from that, then we need to support workers in the places companies run to. (A poorly manned ship sinks no matter how rich the captain’s cabin is.) I know that KStewDawg’s not alone in his sentiment, but whether he represents even a majority of others’ voices I don’t know, but primarily because nobody writes about the strike at all. Perhaps there is more happening on the ground in Searcy than I can gather from here; if so, please tell me. Otherwise, the best conclusion I can draw is that in Searcy solidarity is a dead virtue, a sad state in a city that boasts of being a haven of Christianity. Who truly believes that the first and best response to a labor dispute is to hope the workers get less of everything than they had before? Do Arkansans truly wish such ill upon their fellows?

 

Comments

KAIT TV 8 news interviewed the strikers yesterday—company officials gave no comment. From the KAIT story:

“I’ve been there 24, almost 25 years now, and I don’t want to have to start allover, but there comes a time when you have to stand up for some principles, and what the company offered to us was fully unacceptable to a working man,” said Kevin Jones.

Talks between the local union and Kohler have now come to a dead silence.

All that remains are the messages written across their picket boards.

“It was so ridiculous and so unfair that you finally have to stand up for what you know is right,” said Jones.

The Kohler plant strike began on December 9th after negotiations with the company fell through, and strikers say on this 100th day they’re not giving up and they will continue to strike until their needs are met.

“We’re holding strong. Nobody from the Union has crossed the line. We’ve all been strong. We’ve been hanging in there together, because all of us see it. It’s a principle. It’s something we are willing to stand up for,” said Jones.

Whether they were standing or sitting, picketers were determined to get their point across.

“Doing what we have to do, just hoping and praying that things will work out,” said Jones.

“It’s got to be agreeable to everyone. It’s got to be something we can live with,” said Wayne Epperson.

For those who have spent most of their life at Kohler, they simply want to meet the company in the middle, and stop looking through the gates.

“I’m hoping we can come to a just and fair agreement on both sides, so that we can go back to work, so we can supply the sinks they need. We are all skilled workers. It takes a lot to do what we do in there and we’re not afraid of the work,” said Jones.

Perhaps the haven of Christianity would like to consider some Christian (and other) statements on the right to organize.

(G and K may remember my friend Sara, who did a Seminary Summer with the IWJ some years back (2001 or 2002, I think) in Iowa City. She’s just finished her M.Div. and is now awaiting approval by the synod—any good thoughts and prayers you can send in the direction of Minnesota would be appreciated.)

Here’s hoping something good happens in Searcy.

Hooray for nonfundamentalists who realize that labor is not a privilege!

(Re: Sara, I don’t remember meeting her, L, but I remember your mention of her, including a few troubles she’s had. You can pass my well wishes on.)

PS. (Now I am curious to see similar claims of support for the right to organize from fundamentalists and sundry primitivists.)

PPS. In case of Daily Citizen linkrot, Warren Watkins’ story is here, too.

I’ve made dozens of phone calls and visits to Union headquarters and the factory. I’ve published every single word told me by the union, strikers on the picket line and Kohler. Those who think the Daily Citizen have been silent can kiss my ass.
Warren Watkins, Managing Editor
The Daily Citizen

I see I touched a nerve. WW, I’ll decline to kiss your ass, thank you very much, but—assuming you’ll come back to see what havoc you’ve wrought—three questions: first, is more being published in print than on the Web site? Second, how many editorials have you run about the strike? Third, will you share those editorials online?

What is it with this mystical ability you have to attract the direct attention of the objects of your criticism? I wish I could get my targets to comment on my blog, or even read it. I’d whip them like Dostoevskian donkeys.

I’m somewhat flattered that they take such umbrage when they visit. Writing about local controversies helps (even if you’re not local to the controversy, as I’m not in this case). So too does criticizing the vain (such as those willing to dig 200 links into a Google vanity search).

I’m not sure which is worse: For someone to sign a post asking others to kiss his ass with the full job title “managing editor” or to sign that same title to a post that fails to conjugate the verb “to have.”

I thought the same thing, but didn’t want to say it. TDS must get few letters for its editor to have such thin skin.

Although in his grammatical defense, conjugating verbs is what copy editors are for.

It’s a weak defense, I admit.

Oh, for the luxury of copy editors…

That’s a song we all sing.

Back to the subject, (via J. Goodrich) WW’s protestations notwithstanding, TDC‘s silence is in keeping with the fact that nobody covers labor anymore:

According to Christopher R. Martin, an associate professor of journalism at Miami University, of the top 25 newspapers in the country, only four have reporters assigned to the labor beat.

“Newspapers have shifted from going after mass audiences to targeting upscale audiences. This is a great story,” Mr. Martin said, referring to the Circuit City layoffs, “but it’s about working people. There have been dual wage systems before, but here you have something completely different — the wholesale firing of people who did their jobs well.”

Sure TDC is no Times, but if even the best journalists at big papers believe that “covering business” means to interview the Chamber of Commerce and parrot stock prices and market indexes, how in the world will small town papers know the right questions to ask when faced with a real labor dispute in its backyard? How will it know how to call “bullshit” with its editorial page when “bullshit” needs to be called?

(That entire Times piece is good, by the way. I think it goes in hand with what I wrote before.)

I thought “have” was conjugated appropriately—you could say (at least in British English) “my family have never really liked me” or “Channel 4 have never done well in weather reporting” in the same way that Editor spoke of TDS: as a collective noun that encompasses many voices.
sincerely,
Sometime Grammar Professor

I grant that it’s possible, but unconventional. CMoS (15th ed.) allows that a collective noun can take the plural verb if it is the intent to emphasize the individual members of the group. Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage offers up a more nuanced explanation:

Those commentators who mention British–American differences agree in general that singular verbs are more common in American English and plural verbs more common in British English. Beyond this generality it can be unsafe to venture; where notional agreement operates, there are no absolutes.

Then goes on to explicate how both British & American English verbally abuse the word family with both singular and plural verbs and to explain that Americans use singular verbs much more often with collective nouns when the subject is either politics or sports.

All of that to say it seems WW would need to have intended to refer to TDC as a group rather than as a single entity, which runs entirely counter both to American usage and, even, American law, which paradoxically treats corporations as singular entities.

I think the most plausible excuse, then, is to believe that WW in writing and speech frequently substitutes the name of TDC for the plural personal pronoun “we,” as in “Those who think [we] have been silent can kiss my ass.” It would not be outside the bounds of language. However, I want more evidence of WW using this construction to give him the benefit of that doubt.

The Democrat-Gazette also published a 100-days story on March 29, though Google alerts is only showing it to me now. From the story, a little bit of good news about community support:

[UAW Local 1000 president David] Smith said 227 of the 239 original striking employees at the plant are still on the picket line. “We lost a few that quit and got other jobs, but 227 out of 239, that’s pretty good,” he said. There are 250 employees of the plant, which manufacturers stainless steel sinks for kitchen and baths.

“They hired replacement workers, they’ve probably got 130 in there,” he said.

“I spend two or three days personally on the picket line a week,” Smith said. Early Tuesday, he was visiting with his brother, who was fishing at a game refuge. Smith said he planned to go back to Kohler by 9 a.m.

“I’m going to head back to town and get back to my daily business, which is trying to control the picket line and the whole strike,” he said.

“From what I gather about the community, it’s (support) probably not as strong as it was, but there’s still a lot of horn honking, people bringing water, pizzas,” he said. “People who have taken the time to stop and realize it’s not just over money,” do offer support, he said.

Pizzas is better than nothing at all. But this would all look much, much better if the company and the union were talking.

Ask and ye shall receive. Watkins has a new story in today’s TDC. I think it recognizes the real story here, which is the fact that the strike is still on, that there is no movement whatsoever on the part of the company to negotiate. That’s frustrating—and I think the union president feels it:

Smith said the union members were ready to return to work while negotiations continued…

“We can’t get the company to sit down and talk to us,” Smith said. “That may be their whole intention. They’ve put out in the media we haven’t contacted them, but we have proof we’ve tried to contact them. It’s just a business deal and they’re trying to outwait us. I guess we can’t push them to the table.”

The union’s getting stonewalled, which is both disappointing and ugly. (Nice work, WW.)

At the same time, at the bottom of the Web story TDC now has a comments feature, and the first comment is in line with most of the opinons out of Arkansas that I’ve seen: so anti-labor that it cheers that the company has frozen the union out.