In his new book Tom Juravich takes us behind the statistics of the economic collapse and into the work and lives of Americans who feel like they are being sacrificed At the Altar of the Bottom Line. More

At the Altar of the Bottom Line

Abandoned

Photos

Mike Blair, Dalton Glen Boden, Dalton Pete Peras, Dalton Bob and Gaye Sargent, Dalton

The closing of Jones Beloit

The UE has a history of fighting plant closings, but it had to move quickly. The WARN Act gave the workers and their union only sixty days’ before the plant would close. It wasn’t much time. They began by mobilizing the political community. U.S. Congressman John Olver and a number of state senators and representatives sent a letter to Beloit headquarters: “We, the undersigned, representing the workers affected by this decision, wish to state our great disappointment and protest your company’s recent decision. We hope to meet with you in the near future to discuss ways in which we can support Beloit’s future in Dalton” (Olver 1998, 1).

But the union knew that it would take more than just a letter to the company to keep the plant open. Beginning with the fight in 1984 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to save the Morse Twist Drill company after it was bought by Gulf and Western, UE had explored using eminent domain to keep plants open. During a later campaign to keep the J. C. Rhodes plant open in New Bedford, the UE had worked with a top Boston lawyer to sort out the legal provisions of eminent domain. Dave Cohen explains: He did a lot of work, and turned out to be very excited and interested in this, because he determined that in Massachusetts, according to the constitution, a union, an estate, or a city or a town could seize the factory, not only the building and machinery, but seize the goodwill and the product name, which is key to doing any of this. You don’t want just the equipment, you need the business lists, what they call the goodwill. (2001, 15)

In his six-page letter to the Dalton Select Board on September 14, 1998, UE attorney David S. Nalven laid out the legal underpinnings of eminent domain as it applied to Beloit. Both federal and state law, he wrote, allow for government “to take private property, but only on two conditions: that the taking be supported by a sufficient public purpose, and that just compensation be paid. There is little doubt,” he continued, “that the taking of the Beloit plant would be supported by an appropriate, if not urgent, public purpose. Over the last decade, western Massachusetts has lost many thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs. The Town has lost its share and cannot afford to lose any more” (Nalven 1998, 2).

Meanwhile, the Dalton Select Board sent a letter to Beloit, stating, “We were shocked because this decision seems at odds with both previous corporate statements indicating plans to grow this business locally and the fact that your local operations have been consistently profitable.” The letter goes on to speak about the “business- friendly” climate in Dalton and notes, “Although permitted by state law and despite pressure on the local property tax, the Town of Dalton has consistently resisted the temptation to assign a higher tax rate to commercial and industrial properties.” Furthermore, the letter suggested, “these decisions were made deliberately in order to help secure the health of our businesses” (Gingras 1998, 1).

The Select Board also authorized a trip to meet with officials at company headquarters to discuss the future of the plant. “The mayor of Pittsfield, Jerry Doyle, . . . talked to the City Council and the City Council approved funds for a Cessna jet,” recalls Pat Hubban, the union president, who was invited along. On Friday, September 25, 1998, “We flew out of Pittsfield airport, the mayor and myself, several of the politicians, and [the union representative] David Cohen. We went over and made our pitch to try to keep the plant open in front of all the big shots at Harnischfeger. Told them that our plant could do the drums, why not shut down Nashua. We were productive. We were more profitable and so on.” But as Hubban laments, it was clear that their argument “wasn’t going anywhere” (2001, 12). Mayor Doyle was disgusted: “We off ered them a lot of incentives to stay, but it was like they gave us an hour of their time and that was it” (quoted in Tastad 1999, 1). Six days later, 153 years after E. D. Jones had opened his first shop, company officials announced that the Dalton facility would close permanently. The union held a massive rally on October 1, 1998, marching from the Beloit plant to the center of Pittsfield. As Dave Cohen reports, “It was a three or four mile hike; . . . [we] took over the road, stopped all of the traffi c. I think the line of march was probably a quarter mile long or so; . . . everybody came out of the businesses and waved and cheered, and police escort all of the way, and there we had a really good rally” (2001, 18). Several local politicians and union officials spoke. As one worker at the rally said, “Restructuring the company? They’re restructuring a community. They’re restructuring everyone’s lives” (Stein 1998, A4).

It was an emotional day for many of the workers in Dalton and their families. “For a grown man to stand up in Park Square with tears running down his face and say, ‘Guys, I love every one of you.’ Hey, look, this is a machine shop,” remembers Glen Boden. “These guys are all tough guys” (2001a, 12).

Bamberger and Davidson reflect these sentiments in their Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory. A plant closing, they point out, “is not just about economics. It is about personal loss and family tensions. It is about the joy of work and the tragedy of being deprived of work. It is about the sense of self that comes from pride in one’s craft. And it is about the sense of community that develops when people who might otherwise have little in common . . . work side by side, depending on one another to get a job done right” (1998, 19– 20).

Union officials met the following week with a number of legislators to discuss the remaining options, including using eminent domain. Despite pledges to help, it soon became clear in this small Republican town that local officials had little will to act decisively. Union rep Dave Cohen suggests, “The selectmen were clearly terrified by the idea that we were asking them to use their power of eminent domain to seize part of Harnischfeger Corporation” (2001, 20). So the union and its members moved to Plan B— a worker buyout of the plant.

Jones Beloit was the perfect target for a buyout. The factory and its equipment were in excellent shape, and the demand for their product line was high. The union brought together an impressive team to make a run for a buyout of the plant. Bill Goessel, former head of Beloit and Harnischfeger, now retired in the Berkshires, signed on, as did Michael Messina, a top management official at the Dalton facility who had also retired a few years before. This was no ragtag group of union supporters but included se nior management who brought tremendous experience and clout to the table. Goessel in par tic u lar had important fund- raising connections. The union floated several off ers to Harnischfeger, including leasing the plant, acting as a subcontractor, or buying it outright. They were surprised when, as Dave Cohen remembers, “We got the message that we should fly out to the Beloit headquarters. . . . We were going to meet with the vice president in charge of paper manufacturing. And so we got all excited. We thought, ‘Maybe they’re going to listen to our argument about leasing’ ” (2001, 21).

So Pat Hubban, Dave Cohen, and Michael Messina flew out to the Midwest, hopeful that there might yet be a future in Dalton. This was the first time Cohen and Messina had spent any time together. Cohen recalls, “He was not a pro- union guy. I sat with him the whole plane ride and he told me how he hated the unions, but in order to save the factory, he’d work with us” (2001, 21).

Messina describes the meeting at Beloit headquarters. It got off to a bad start.

We met with this Bill Hacket and he was just an uppity kind of guy. The first thing he did was he threw out a sheet of paper that was faxed in to him that was copied off the [Berkshire] Eagle that morning that somebody, I think the personnel manager in Dalton, sent him out, a fax of what was in the Eagle. And it was something about Pat Hubban saying, “We’re trying to do this. We’re trying to do that.” “Listen,’ he said. “We don’t need this kind of publicity because this plant is going to shut down and I don’t want to give these people a lot of high hope or anything like that.” (2002, 9)

The conversation then turned to the possibility of a buyout or leasing of the company’s facility. Their hopes were dashed before they even got a chance to make their argument. Hacket was brusque and to the point. “He said, ‘Let me make this clear,’ ” Messina recalls. “ ‘We’re getting rid of all the machines.’ He says, ‘We’re going to sell everything.’ He wouldn’t hear any of it. ‘I just wanted to tell you straight to your face, go fuck yourself. We’ll never do it’ ” (2002, 9).

“I thought that Messina was going to have a heart attack,” Cohen remembers. “I thought his head was going to explode, he turned so red. No one had ever talked to him like this. [Then Hacket continued] ‘You’re not getting my message. I figured I had to tell you straight to your face. Otherwise you’d never stop trying.’ ” And he went into a long speech, explaining that they were going to get rid of every worker they had in the United States, that it was a waste of money to hire workers who were going to be only assemblers. The company’s plan was to subcontract the work that had been done by the Dalton plant. As Cohen reports, “He put up big charts on the wall. And their plan was, they said, since they had all the blueprints, they were going to create mom and pop, that was the term he used, ‘mom and pop,’ fifteen- person machine shops throughout the United States. . . . When they needed to build a pulper, they would send blueprints to each of these machine shops, and they would make the different parts, and then they would send them to whoever wanted a pulper, and they would assemble it” (2001, 22, 11).

This plan sounded ludicrous to workers who had honed their skills over a lifetime creating the products that had made Jones Beloit products famous around the world.

You don’t take thirty years of experience and replace it with some kid who just went to technical school. . . . Our guys could tap a hole and look inside the hole and tell if the gauge would go in. . . . We used to take our scales and mea sure things and see how close we could get and check it with a mike. I mean, we could get to a point, of course, with young eyes you can get within ten- thousandths with a scale. Those are things you bring with you for the rest of your life. (Boden 2001a, 26– 27)

A lot of the men on the shop floor saw Harnischfeger’s recalcitrance over making any deal with the union the same way Pete Peras saw it: “They didn’t want us to make it. . . . They’re not going to do it because the only thing this is going to do is show everybody that this company blew it” (Peras and Peras 2001, 26).

Time was running out, and the union continued its negotiations over the severance package. The final agreement would provide one week’s pay for every year that an employee had worked, capped at twenty- six weeks. For many, this was a substantial amount of money, which they would start receiving weekly. Some workers left as soon as the agreement was signed. Bob Sargent was one of them.

I was fairly close to one of the head people over there, and I got really ticked. That’s why I left right at the beginning, when they said they were going to close. I could have worked longer, but I didn’t want to because I really had hard feelings. I had just talked to, about three weeks earlier, one of the higher- ups there— I don’t want to mention his name— and I was asking him “What’s it look like?” He says, “Oh, it’s great. We ain’t got to worry, we’re going to be here for a long time.” (Sargent and Sargent 2001a, 5)