Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Manitowoc Matters

Wisconsinites have become very adept at their protest skills during the past year.  One of the dangers of these mass movements,  however, is the tendency to lose our peripheral vision.  What I mean is that we spend so much time on the “big ticket” items, like recalls or protesting a terrible piece of legislation, that we don’t pay attention to other smaller danger signs. 

Sometimes real danger lurks in very small packages, like the tiny piece of plaque that breaks free from an artery wall and results in a massive heart attack.  These small dangers are often overlooked with catastrophic results. 

Prior to November, I couldn’t even tell you for certain where Manitowoc, Wisconsin was on the map.  Manitowoc is a community of  approximately 33,000 people on the shores of Lake Michigan, 30 miles north of SheboyganManitowoc has huge significance for me today.  Manitowoc is now the epicenter of what is, in my opinion, one of the most important fights outside of the recall efforts when it comes to labor rights in this state.

On November, 15th, almost 200 men and women of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted overwhelmingly (180 to 2) to walk off the job on strike.  These machinists represent Local Lodge 516, and are the machinists of Manitowoc Crane Company.  Manitowoc Crane is a division of the Manitowoc Company, a multi-billion dollar international corporation specializing in the manufacture of cranes, as well as food service equipment.   Manitowoc Crane builds enormous, specialized cranes that ship all over the world.  The company has employed workers from the Machinist’s union and other unions, including painters and boilermakers, for decades.  Generally speaking, I have been told that there was historically a generally respectful relationship between the unions and management.

Until now.

The machinist’s contract was coming up for renegotiation at the end of 2011.  Negotiations progressed as usual, until the company, in the vernacular of Scott Walker, dropped a bomb.  The company’s offer of modest wage increases would come at a cost.  A monumental cost.  The company proposed a host of union-busting measures, including recertification votes and allowing “voluntary” union membership, which allows people to get union protections without actually paying union dues.  The intent of such measures is to starve the union financially and reduce the number of union members to the point where they can be crushed.

This should look familiar to all of my Wisconsin readers.  It is directly out of the playbook of Scott Walker’s administration.  These measures are extremely similar to the union busting provisions Act 10 heaped upon public employees last year.  It is directly out of the playbook of the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a whole host of right wing think tanks.  It is part of the national right wing agenda to kill the labor movement, plain and simple.  Luckily, the machinists of Lodge 516 saw the folly of trading labor rights for a few percentage points of wage increases. 

It barely made news in Madison outside of the blogs and labor stalwarts like Sly in the Morning.

I and other "Cops for Labor" representatives have been up to Manitowoc on  two occasions, once for a rally on December 3rd which drew approximately 3,000 people.  The other occasion was a couple of weeks ago, when we returned to walk the picket line and deliver a check to their strike fund.  We talked to the striking machinists and heard their stories.  We heard in their words, and felt in their spirit, their resolve and commitment to hold the line.

You see, the machinists of Lodge 516 are the private sector domino in Wisconsin, and they know it. 

When Act 10 was introduced in February of  last year, Governor Walker and his minions tried to sell the story that this was just about public sector workers.  We need to control those greedy public employees, they said.  However, they told us, we don’t have anything against unions in general.  In fact, we’re HELPING union employees, they claimed.  Wisconsinites knew better, and the private sector unions knew better.  It is why we saw so many steelworkers, machinists, pipefitters, and trade union members marching in solidarity with us at the Capitol last year.  They knew what was coming.

In my opinion, what is happening in Manitowoc is the test case for the Walker administration and the large corporations in this state.  If they can bust Lodge 516, the dominos will begin their fall toward the ultimate goal of pure “right to work.”  None of us know if there has been direct communication between Manitowoc Company and the Walker administration, but I have my suspicions.  Even if there haven’t been, Walker and the Republican legislature have created a climate in Wisconsin ripe for this type of assault on workers.  It is the goal of those like Walker and Company to create a legion of low-educated, low paid workforce to deliver to the corporate masters. 

None of us can imagine how hard it has been for the machinists of Lodge 516 to hold the line.  To go on strike during the winter in Wisconsin.  To live on a tiny weekly check from a strike fund during the peak heating season.  To watch the bills pile up.  To figure out how you are going to feed your family,  let alone buy Christmas presents for your kids.  The pressure to cave in must be extraordinary.

But the machinists of Lodge 516 haven’t caved.  Last week, they overwhelmingly rejected another offer from the company which still contained union-busting measures.  Make no mistake about it, the company also understands the significance of this fight.  Other union’s contracts with the company will expire in the near future.  If the machinists lose, the rest of them don’t have a prayer. 

The machinists of Lodge 516 are standing up for the rights of all workers in this state, and we should be grateful for that.  Many of us will be celebrating our recall signature gathering victories in Madison tomorrow.  We have accomplished something great.  However, we should all pause at some point to remember those currently battling, without fanfare, in Manitowoc. We should also support them in any way we can.  If you can afford it, please send them a monetary donation to their strike fund listed below.  Tell them that you care.  Why?

Because Manitowoc matters.


All donations to support the Machinists Lodge 516 strike fund can be sent to:

MCI strike fund
Attn: Local Lodge 516
PO Box 222
Manitowoc, WI  54221-0222  


  1. Thank you Brian for this great letter, and Thank YOU Manitowoc Machinist Strikers who are brave enough to walk the walk and stand in solidarity for all the workers in Manitowoc County and all workers everywhere who work so hard to make a buck while the corporations bathe in wealth. May God stand with you and bless you with an outcome you so deserve. Stay strong! ~sharon

  2. My in-laws live in Manitowoc. I understand this hard-working class community, and applaud the machinist for holding strong, and still fighting. I was very happy to see that they have turned down again, and are still striking. Good for them! - 911 Telecommunications Operator, always helping, continually fighting for the greater good.