OTTUMWA, Iowa (AEP) – A sit-down strike in Ottumwa, Iowa, has won workers there a 30-hour week with no loss in pay.
Workers at the Harris Auto Parts plant, who are members of CIO Local #5551212, said they were tired of their union’s lack of action or even acknowledgement of their concerns and decided to take matters into their own hands.
“We’d said for a long time now that we wanted this — that we wanted to do something,” said Karen Jameson, one of the strike leaders. “But our concerns fell on deaf ears at the union. So we decided to stand up and fight for ourselves instead.”
Union recrimination was bitter and immediate. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “These workers did not honor their contract. The highest priority for workers must always be to honor their contract. It doesn’t matter if the contract specifies you walk naked into a cyanide chamber and take deep breaths. If it’s in the contract, you do it.”
Change-To-Win leader Andy Stern concurred: “Everyone knows my personal feelings about John Sweeney. I wouldn’t walk across the street to spit on him if he were on fire. But in this case, he’s right. Not only that, but these workers broke the law. The living standards of the U.S. working class — or any other country’s working class for that matter — have no standing in the face of legal requirements.” Stern was throwing darts with AFL-CIO flights at a map of Venezuela as he spoke.
When it was pointed out to Stern that virtually all gains ever won by workers or anyone else were usually won by extra-legal means, Stern responded, “We’re not talking about the past. We’re talking about the present. And in the present, Sweeney and I are important people who run major labor organizations, and men like he and I have decided that this how it will be. If U.S. workers can’t understand that, they should move to China.”
Jameson said, “This attitude on the part of union managers like Stern and Sweeney has been the problem all along. They wear suits, sit behind desks, and neither know nor care about what goes on on the shop floor.”
Sweeney begged to differ: “I often wear a polo shirt to the office.”
County officials were horrified by developments at the Harris plant. The local government even went so far as to bring a guillotine to the workers’ picket line, chopping melons with Post-It notes attached that said, “Strike Leader.”
At one point, police had arrested Jameson and placed her head in the guillotine, citing national security requirements. But a group of community residents and church activists successfully prevented her execution and dismantled the device.
“This is barbaric,” said the Rev. Sarah Powers, pastor of the Ottumwa Episcopalian Church. “How can we claim to be bringing democracy to the Middle East when workers here at home toil in corporations, which are tyrannical institutions and totally unaccountable to the public.”
“Nonsense,” said Harris President and CEO Carl Mettlekamp. “I’ve been associated with this corporation for 20 years, and it doesn’t feel at all tyrannical to me.”
Washington politicians had strong feelings on the workers’ strike. Democratic presidential candidate and current front-runner Hillary Clinton said, “If this kind of thing happens when I’m president, I’ll raze the factory with the employees still inside. Viruses like this cannot be allowed to spread.”
Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson said, “Razing the facility is going too far. Those productive assets are too valuable. Putting arsenic in their drinking water is a far superior plan.”
Local media vilified the strikers. Each night, Ottumwa ABC affiliate KTVO-TV opened its six o’clock news program with Photoshopped images of Karen Jameson dismembering live kittens with kitchen implements. In response, community activists and their supporters occupied the station’s lobby demanding honest news coverage.
“The behavior of media at all levels in this country is outrageous,” said Powers. “Whether it’s The New York Times, Fox News, or National Public Radio reporting on Iraq — or local outlets’ racist fixation on petty crimes committed by nonwhites — it’s always the same thing: Defend the system, defend the system, defend the system. It was the same thing here, as they did nothing but lambaste the workers and defend capitalist prerogatives.”
Powers said she was going to begin organizing a national movement to engage in direct action against corporate media at all levels: “We’re not just going to call, e-mail, and fax mainstream media outlets — though we are going to be doing some of this. We’re going to organize massive nonviolent demonstrations, occupations, and takeovers of their offices. Let’s see how NBC News reports the story when 15,000 people show up outside Rockefeller Center to demand honest coverage of GE’s involvement in the nuclear industry.” (General Electric has been the parent company of NBC since 1986.)
Jameson said she found the road ahead exciting: “Everybody’s ready for massive change. Classism, sexism, racism, authoritarianism — we can deal with all these things and create a much better world in the process. Our 30-hour week at 40-hours pay is the first step, but it won’t be the last.”