Life and death on the shop floor

Marianne Garneau looks at the deadly conditions at Briggs & Stratton in Wisconsin, and why the union struggles to respond

Workers at Briggs & Stratton outside of Milwaukee are navigating a deadly game with their employer. The company, a manufacturer of small engines and related machines (lawn mowers, generators, etc.), is playing chicken with employees’ health, pushing them to come into work, letting them work sick, and withholding information about their possible coronavirus exposure. While bragging about its consortium efforts to design masks for health care workers, the company dragged its feet supplying PPE for its own employees, only doing so several weeks into the outbreak and after being publicly embarrassed in a local news story. Management still doesn’t require workers to wear masks, and neither is management doing so itself.

Briggs has used the pandemic as an excuse to bar union representatives from visiting facilities to attend to health and safety concerns or other union matters, blithely responding to grievances and ULP complaints that this is “best practices.” It has also conveniently laid off half the stewards. Repeatedly, the company has had to temporarily shut down production lines when workers – some of them near collapse after several days working visibly ill — have tested positive for COVID-19, or have walked off the line. Each time, management claims it is cleaning the plant during down time, something workers returning to work and seeing conditions seriously doubt.

The company finally got its wish yesterday when a worker died from the coronavirus. He had participated in a walkout last month over unsafe working conditions and the company’s lackadaisical response to the coronavirus pandemic. The company called up the local and complained. The president of the local sent out a mass text telling workers not to walk off the job, and to “contact the Human Resources Department” if they “have any concerns in regards to COVID-19.”

Union response

What is up with the union? Workers are represented by USW 2-232, an amalgamated local that includes another manufacturer and health care union staffers. The unit at Briggs has been decimated by decades of subcontracting, plant relocations, temps, and “Right To Work” legislation. When Wisconsin passed RTW, the company held meetings and sent letters encouraging workers to dump the union. When that didn’t succeed, they told the union they were scrapping dues deduction, then walked away from the table. The NLRB sided with the company.

In the 1980s and 90s, the company pummeled the union, repeatedly demanding wage and benefit concessions with the threat of moving production elsewhere. Repeatedly, the union gave in, only to watch Briggs make good on its threats anyway. In 1993, when workers engaged in a work-to-rule slowdown, the company sued the union. The international trusteed the local (at the time part of the Allied Industrial Workers), and the organizers of the slowdown were fired.

The unit has dwindled from some 12,000 workers to around 500. A couple hundred temps work in the plants and warehouses, ineligible for union membership. Adecco literally has an office inside the Briggs building.

When the company stopped collecting dues, a handful of activists rebuilt the unit, with little help from the international. Nearly bankrupt, the Local balks at bringing grievances all the way to arbitration. The company can smell blood in the water and does as it pleases. Massively in debt, it has sped up production during the pandemic to try to get a leg up on the competition. Workers are keeping up a frantic pace — and coming in sick. (Office staff, meanwhile, are allowed to work from home.)

The President of the local runs interference, talking to the company without involvement from the members or the bargaining committee in the Briggs unit. 

A sad but familiar history

It may be exceedingly frustrating to hear about the union’s ineffectiveness, but the decline of local 2-232 tracks a familiar pattern in the labor movement as a whole. In fact, the rise and fall of the bargaining unit is an almost perfect microcosm of labor relations over the past century.

Organizing attempts started not long after the company’s founding in 1908, including by the Machinists and the IWW in the 1930s. The company’s response was always ruthless. Workers finally came under the representation of the UAW in 1937 – two years after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, and immediately on the heels of the Flint sit-down strike. The union secured a 20% wage increase, vacation time, and a grievance process – interestingly, all of this outside a contract since, as the history on the local’s website explains, “the UAW had a policy stating that there should be no signed contracts, only written policies… because the labor movement was enjoying considerable success in a very fluid labor relations environment at that time.”

Over the next 13 years, however, the union pivoted to fighting for a comprehensive contract, including union security clauses (closed shop, dues check-off), among other demands.  It’s worth noting that a split had occurred in the UAW between the more radical “Unity” caucus which remained neutral on the question of Communist members and supported local autonomy and wildcats, and the “Progressive” faction under Homer Martin, who said “we cannot build a union that does not consider its obligations sacred” and “any unauthorized strike or stoppage of work is a betrayal of the best interests of our union.” Eventually, the UAW divided itself between an AFL and a CIO affiliate; the local at Briggs and Stratton went with the former. (When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, the UAW-AFL became the Allied Industrial Workers. Future mergers landed the local with the Steelworkers.)

For its part, the government has generally only intervened on the side of management. When the company stonewalled the union on the security clauses and other demands, the union appealed to the War Labor Board. The Board sided with the union, recommending the company grant its various demands, but Briggs merely ignored the decision, claiming the WLB didn’t have jurisdiction. The union then began a series of work stoppages. The company complained to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Board and won. The Supreme Court agreed.

The union eventually prevailed in its demands with a three-month strike in 1950. However, the strike was extremely divisive: the company claimed that nearly half of the roughly 1,900 workers crossed the line. “When I first got there” in 1971, a long-time worker recalls, “people would point out to me who had scabbed in 1950. You don’t forget that fight.”

After that, the union entered into a period of complacency. In the 1970s, radicals in the union built a reform caucus, eventually taking over union leadership. During years of huge company profitability, they secured wage gains that made jobs at Briggs comfortably middle class. Still, they could not fend off the concession contracts and relocations. A strike in ’84 again divided the membership, and eventually the union, its strike funds dwindling, had to go back. The company, and more conservative factions in the union, played up the radicals’ antagonism to the company as sending jobs away. Eventually, the company found itself a more “reasonable” negotiating partner, in part with the help of the trusteeship move by the international.  

In, short power has ebbed from Local 2-232 on track with the rest of organized labor, as government and business have partnered to box out worker militancy through the labor relations system.

Which brings us to the present. Scrappy stewards try to use what’s left of the contract and the grievance process, and occasionally, fed-up workers wildcat.

“We have 2 struggles at the same time,” a worker at Briggs says: “Life and death on the shop floor, and life and death of the union itself.”