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Strikers at auto parts giant defy company thugs
Standing up for the union

By Lee Sustar | June 11, 2004 | Page 12

BEDFORD, Ind.--Striking workers and their supporters at a Visteon Corp. auto parts plant refused to be intimidated after security guards attacked their picket line May 30. So the 1,000 strikers--members of International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) Local 84907--fought back.

The two attacks on their picket line by company thugs--followed by two more beatings from Indiana State Police later on--sent more than a dozen workers to the hospital. But workers refused to be cowed.

On the evening of June 2, a group of strike supporters dumped two abandoned cars in front of the Visteon plant gate. Both cars were flipped--and one was set on fire.

Jim Lobbes, who has worked at the plant for almost 10 years, was among the workers blocking a vanload of scabs when guards--from the union-busting security company Huffmaster Inc.-- first attacked. He was kneed in the groin, then nearly run down by the van driver.

"It was pure violence," he told Socialist Worker. "I was in shock. I thought, 'What's going on, this is America.' It reminded me of a newsreel of Hitler's Germany." TV news videos showed the guards swinging sticks, heavy belts and other weapons at workers.

A few hours later, Indiana State Police--in full riot gear--marched to the picket line in formation and launched their own assault. Once again, Lobbes was beaten--forced up against a fence and then hit with a cop's shield three times in the head.

If the company thugs and state cops are aggressive, it's in keeping with management's demands. Plant bosses say that the Bedford plant made a $13 million profit in 2002, but lost $14 million in 2003. That's nonsense, given the increase in vehicle sales.

Visteon wants to move 550 jobs out of the plant--more than half of the 1,027 total hourly jobs. Management also wants to start new hires at $10 an hour, with a maximum of about $11 over the life of a six-year contract--compared to average pay of about $16 per hour for assembly workers and $19 for skilled trades.

"We already have a two-tier within our contract, but those people get to full pay [after eight years]," said Theressa Turpin, a 13-year worker and assembly tester. "We didn't like it when we voted it in, but it got in because they eventually were going to get to full pay. This time they wanted to split the union, and it didn't work."

Under management's proposals, retirees would have to spend more than a third of the proposed $960 monthly pension on health insurance premiums--not including payments for prescription drugs. The company also wants big changes in work rules. "They want to take our union out so they can go in and fire people," said Melody Gratzer, a nine-year worker at the plant.

Visteon officials first told workers that production would be moved to Mexico--but admitted on the eve of the strike that the jobs would go to a Visteon plant in Rawsonville, Mich., where United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 898 represents workers. "They said it's not about the people here, it's about the product. We can take the product to Mexico, and make $38 million more," Local 84907 President Earl Wilson told Socialist Worker. But a union member discovered on an internal company Web site that production was going to Rawsonville instead.

Wilson and the negotiating committee submitted the contract to a vote in order to avoid an automatic lockout--and stayed neutral on the deal. But workers have seen companies like General Electric and RCA close plants in the area and move production even after unions agreed to take wage cuts. So they voted down the proposed contract on May 29.

By pitting Bedford against Rawsonville, Visteon is using the auto industry tactic of "whipsawing"--pitting one plant against another in order to extract concessions. As long as the Bedford strike is on, Local 898 has refused to accept equipment from Bedford. So the gear was sent to a nonunion company in Ohio--Toledo Mold and Die. But by provoking a strike at a strategic plant--the Bedford workers produce complex fuel delivery systems used in most Ford vehicles--Visteon is taking aim at both unions.

In the 2003 national contract with Visteon and Delphi Corp.--the parts company formerly owned by General Motors--the UAW to agreed to allow the companies to hire new workers at $14 per hour, down from $24 at current plants, with a top pay of about $18. Now, both Delphi and Visteon want to get rid of higher-paid UAW workers by allowing them to "flow back" to GM and Ford.

Meanwhile, Visteon is putting the squeeze on another IUE-CWA local at a parts plant about 120 miles away from Bedford--in Connersville, Ind., where workers are represented by Local 84919. By taking a stand in Bedford--and Connersville--the IUE-CWA could draw a line against the auto parts industry's race to the bottom.

With management determined to break the strike, however, the union will need financial support and all the solidarity it can get on the picket line. Some strikers said that they needed more meetings and information to discuss next steps.

There are other issues as well. Management has hired a nearly all-Black security force and scabs to replace a mostly white workforce, and handful of workers responded by bringing a racist symbol--a large Confederate flag--to the picket line. But the potential to build solidarity is there--as seen by the show of force June 2 when supporters blocked the gates with the flipped cars.

Already, members of UAW Local 400, which represents workers at a nearby plant, and CWA members from the phone company SBC, have walked picket lines. "The rank and file are standing up," said Billy Robinson, former president of UAW Local 2036, who visited the picket line himself June 6.

He told workers about his experience taking on the union busters at the auto parts maker Accuride, where a five-year strike and lockout ended when the UAW abandoned the local. "Everyone on the picket line talks about trying to protect the retirees in their health benefits and their money, and also try to protect jobs and their children when they are coming up," Robinson said. "This is what unionism is all about."

Solidarity can stop the scabs

THE BRUTAL attacks by security guards and police on strikers at Visteon is only the latest example of Corporate America's use of force against workers. Management used the same heavy-handed tactics in similar struggles in the 1990s at companies like A.E. Staley Manufacturing, Bridgestone-Firestone, Caterpillar and the Detroit News and Free Press--organizing scabbing operations that ultimately inflicted terrible defeats on the unions.

And earlier this year, workers at a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant in Wisconsin were defeated in an 11-month strike when the company threatened to allow scabs to vote to decertify their union.

That's why the efforts to stop the scabs in Bedford are so important. These union-busters will keep going until labor can shut their operations down. Bedford Visteon strikers need to call on the unions in the area--and beyond--to build the solidarity that's needed to take on this corporate giant and win.

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