Europe Re-Discovers America… and It Ain’t Pretty

The industries and nationalities differ, but the tactics remain the same.  European companies that wouldn’t dream of pulling similar stunts in their home countries have found they can treat American workers as shabbily as American companies treat Third World workers, yet never have to worry about any public relations backlash.  If it weren’t so tragic, the post-Cold War irony would be savory.

Take, for example, the French-owned multinational Roquette Freres.  Twenty years ago, Roquette opened a milling plant in the tiny town of Keokuk, Iowa, lured there by the generous promise of tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and other financial benefits.  The community leaders desperately needed the industry, and Roquette was more than happy to put down roots.

But last September, things turned unexpectedly ugly when Roquette put a gun to the head of the 240 members of BCTGM (Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers) Local 48 G and told them that unless they accepted what amounted to the evisceration of their current contract, they would be locked-out.

Roquette’s “last, best and final” offer to the union was an insult.  It included a $4 per hour pay cut, total freedom to use temp workers in place of full-time employees, elimination of sick, maternity and personal leaves, elimination of the pension plan, and drastic increases in health care premiums.  All jammed down the union’s throat.

Needless to say, if Roquette had dared used a similar power-play in France, they would have a public relations nightmare on their hands—not to mention a possible riot.  But noting that the U.S. has neither the strict labor laws nor the grudging but deep-seated pro-union sentiment France has, Roquette believes it can get away with any anti-union muscle tactics it likes.  And, apparently, it can.

Unfortunately, because Local 48 G couldn’t possibly sign so inferior an agreement, the union membership has been locked out since September, 2010.  The union’s good faith offer to continue working while negotiating was summarily turned down by the company.  Clearly, Roquette already had made up its mind; they were either going to humiliate the union by forcing it to capitulate, or destroy the Local outright, through attrition.

Some months ago I interviewed by telephone Local 48 G’s president, Steve Underwood, and learned that, although he and his fellow members were understandably disappointed and frustrated, they were hanging in there as best they could—despite being out of work during the holidays, which made for a bleak Christmas.  As of this writing, Local 48 G is still locked out.  It’s been almost 10 months.

Another example of this mutated European opportunism occurred in Washington, D.C., practically in the shadow of the Capitol Dome.  A German-based company (Jamestown Properties, with headquarters in Cologne) purchased the landmark Madison Hotel in the nation’s capital, and, after taking over, on January 19, 2011, proceeded to mount a frontal assault on its workforce.

The company boldly announced, on January 31, that it had decided not only to refuse to recognize the existing contract between the previous owners and UNITE-HERE, the union representing 150 workers, but to more or less “fire” everybody and require them to re-apply for their jobs. Simple as that. No talking, no compromising, no second thoughts. The decision was unilateral and final.  They pull a stunt like that in Germany—with their labor laws—and the company executives go to jail.

And then there’s Ikea’s Danville, Virginia, manufacturing plant.  It was only three years ago that state and local officials offered the high-profile Swedish company $12 million dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to lure it to Virginia.  For Danville, it seemed like the economic coup of the century:  a tiny, backwater, industry-starved community manages to attract a renowned corporation like Ikea.  It was a dream come true.

Then, alas, catastrophe struck.  Ikea’s Danville plant turned into a Scandinavian version of a modern day sweatshop.  When the IAM (International Association of Machinists) made a run at unionizing the facility, Ikea went into a hysterical defensive posture, actually hiring the law firm of Jackson Lewis, an aggressive, anti-labor outfit that specializes in keeping unions out.  And that NEVER would have happened back home in Sweden.

Of course, without a union to protect the employees, Ikea-Danville quickly began doing what many non-union shops are fond of doing.  They established draconian, top-down work rules—unilaterally altering seniority, forcing people to work overtime without advance notice, and arbitrarily lowering the starting hourly wage from $9.75 per hour to $8.00 per hour (the federal minimum is $7.25).

Again, none of the aforementioned hardball tactics would be employed in Europe….which is why these corporations are relocating here.  As conservative as the European Right can be, you don’t hear right-wing politicians publicly advocating the wholesale elimination of labor unions and the abolition of the federal minimum wage.  Even the European Right would view such extreme positions as nutty.

But you do hear those suggestions being made in the U.S.  And you don’t just hear them from some fringe commentator ranting on a low-frequency Mojave Desert radio station.  You hear them from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Koch brothers.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.