Harley-Davidson workers in Wisconsin approve deal that will freeze pay, save hundreds of jobs

By Dinesh Ramde, AP
Monday, September 13, 2010

Wis. Harley workers approve contract to freeze pay

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Harley-Davidson Inc.’s three Wisconsin unions approved a labor contract Monday laden with steep concessions, reacting defensively after the motorcycle company threatened to move hundreds of jobs out of the state.

The proposed deal freezes employees’ pay, slashes hundreds of production jobs and assigns large volumes of work to part-time workers. But it also saves at hundreds of other jobs, at least in the short-term.

Some 1,140 union members from a suburban Milwaukee plant voted, approving the contract by a 55 to 45 percent margin. In northern Wisconsin, 293 workers at the Tomahawk plant voted, approving it by a margin of 73 to 27 percent.

Harley-Davidson Inc. executives had said they would move production out of Wisconsin if the contract were rejected, which would have eliminated about 1,350 jobs. They are now set to decide the next steps Tuesday.

Mike Masik, the president of the Milwaukee-based chapter of the United Steel Workers, said the close vote there reveals how grudgingly his workers approved the deal.

“It shows people are really getting sick of being threatened,” he said.

Although the contract runs for seven years starting in April 2012, it doesn’t guarantee the company will stay in Wisconsin that whole time, Masik said — only that the company will stop searching for alternate sites.

Employees in Tomahawk were more willing to concede. That’s because the loss of Harley jobs there would be far more devastating in such a small community, said Frank Garrou, the president of the local union.

“This is about jobs in the local economy,” Garrou said. “Once they’re gone they’re gone. That’s what it boiled down to.”

The Milwaukee contract includes one-time lump-sum payments of $12,000, left over from a previous grievance settlement, which go to all active employees and to laid-off workers who were eligible to be called back.

A number of those laid-off workers voted yes, citing the money as a big factor.

“I was laid off, I had no chance of being called back so yeah, I wanted the $12,000,” said Greg Kuehn, 49, a machinist who has since found work at a printing company. “If I still worked there, though, I would have voted no.”

Some workers who did vote no said they thought the company was bluffing about moving in such a bad economy, while others were angry at being given such a bitter ultimatum.

“It was like, ‘Take it or leave it,’” said Mary Dexter, 58, who has worked in a warehouse for almost 10 years. “Well, then, adios. See ya.”

The Harley workers make motorcycle engines in Milwaukee and windshields and other components in the northern Wisconsin city of Tomahawk.

Harley said it appreciated both the outcome of the vote and the members’ support of the contract.

“Today’s outcome in Milwaukee is a significant step toward creating the competitive, flexible operations that are essential to the company’s future,” it said in a statement.

Some union members consoled each other outside the Waukesha County Exposition Center where they voted, saying Harley was holding the union accountable for its own foolish business decisions. Several said Harley chief executive Keith Wandell should take an equal cut in pay, and another said the company that had once been a pillar in Milwaukee has now become a disgrace.

“For Sale” signs hung on about a dozen of the approximate 100 Harley motorcycles parked outside the center.

Union member Greg Voelzke, 52, said he voted against the contract because it included no guarantees the company would stay.

“We came to battle today, not for victory, but to fight another day,” said Voelzke, who has worked for Harley-Davidson for 22 years. He said he did not want to support a contract that offered so little.

Gary Walczak, who has driven a Harley truck for 40 years, reasoned that despite the lack of a guarantee, a non-guaranteed job was still better than none.

“That’s the whole reason I voted yes, just to keep jobs in Milwaukee,” he said.


Harley-Davidson: www.harley-davidson.com/

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