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Memories Of A Pathfinder

Part 8, The International Harvester Strike of 1979-80 -- 11/01/09

I worked as a machinist for International Harvester (IH) from October 1, 1974 until October 23, 1981. It was a great job, very good pay and excellent benefits. This page will talk about the lengthy strike starting thirty years ago today, November 1, 1979.

During my employment at IH, I was a paid member of the United Auto Workers (UAW). The union negotiated contracts with the company every three years. This had been a standard practice for decades with only a few strikes in the same amount of time. This would all change during the time leading up to the contract negotiations in 1979.

It is important for me to explain my role and observations as a former employee of IH before, during, and after the strike. In the years since, I have had plenty of time to analyze that part of my life and how it shaped me after my career with IH ended.

The Union Perspective

I was an outspoken member of the union at union meetings. I spoke about inconsistencies of logic in dealings with the company. For decades the union spoke about a brotherhood almost as if to say that all members of the union were of the same family. This is a foolish perspective to impress on members. I was not part of a larger family. I was a worker who was part of a collective bargaining agreement. That's all I was, just like ever other member.

I did believe in the majority of union perspectives about working according to the contract. But I often witnessed many abuses by the local union I was a part of and the union representatives on the shop floor. For example, if a worker was consistently absent without good cause and then suspended or fired after multiple warnings, the union deemed it necessary to do whatever it took to get that worker back to work. I thought the company was right to suspend or fire workers who had little regard for their employment and make room for a worker who did appreciate the job. This perspective of mine did not win me popularity contests with the union.

On the other hand, as an alternate steward, I argued for the legitimate rights of a worker according to the contract when the need arose. So the union and I sort of had a "love-hate" relationship with each other. This did not cause serious problems for me or them. It was an irritant at worst for they and I to oppose the brain-washing techniques of the brotherhood mentality. Often conversations I would raise at union meetings would stir someone to call me a company man, considered equal to being a traitor to the cause. I stood my ground nonetheless.

I never had any disciplinary issues with the union nor the company. It's just I wasn't the usual humble submissive person both sides would have preferred me to be. But that's life as we all know it.

The Company Perspective

For the bulk of my time as an employee of IH, I thought the company was fair, according to the contract. I may have had disagreements with my foreman or general foreman at times, but I never thought they were unfair to me.

However, for the contract negotiations for the 1979 contract, the company did make a fatal flaw in their planning. They hired, Archie McCardell to run the company. In reality, without realizing it, they actually hired him to run the company down through ignorance of the union strength and his stupidity as the company's lead strategist for the contract negotiations.

The company promoted many workers into management in the six months preceding the strike. They were preparing their management workforce to replace workers if the strike came to fruition.

Archie, had the position that the company could dictate terms to the union, reversing gains the union had made over decades of working with the company. He brought in business consultants to force the shop foreman to find ways to antagonize the workforce. Archie didn't believe in talking or reasoning things out, he was only interested in extracting huge concessions from the union, to break it. The stage was being set for disaster.

I recall the largest opposition to Archie's demands was the concession to work mandatory overtime. All overtime was voluntary since a 1950's contract. Now he wanted slavery to replace respectful relationships. This was not going to happen.

I worked more volunteer overtime during my years at IH than for any other company, except my own businesses and partnerships. I often worked between 12-28 hours of overtime a week. I rarely turned down offers to work overtime.

What the company wanted was 14 mandatory overtime days per employee per year. I thought that might not be too bad a concession if: 1) Any days I voluntarily worked were subtracted from the 14 mandatory days; and, 2) Any overtime days I asked to work and were refused by the company would also be subtracted from the 14 day limit. That seemed fair to me, otherwise I would be working way too often and perhaps not able to take time off when I needed it. I offered my suggestion up to the union. I was immediately shot down as being a company man. When I suggested the same alternative to my general foreman, he said that would be impracticable to implement.

In any case, because Archie wouldn't negotiate in good faith, the strike took place starting November 1, 1979. It would last almost 6 months. I lost thousands of dollars in income and spent about $3,000 out of our savings during that time. I knew the principles of not allowing Archie to break the union was worth it.

During The Strike

Workers picketed the company and received a very small amount of pay from the union for picket duty. I found a group of older men that picketed on Friday mornings and they informed me of skilled trade positions in the firm. Those discussions led me continue my college studies to prepare for openings in that arena. I enjoyed their company, even through the very cold winter weather on that picket line back then.

Here's what was happening on the inside of the plant where I had worked. The company forced every staff (non-union) and management employee to work 12-hour days, seven days a week during the entire strike. They even forced the company doctor to work on the machines! Product went out the door and returned when the quality of the product wasn't accepted by the customer. It's not so easy for people not trained in the proper skills to manufacture quality product. The company learned that lesson the hard way with returned product.

Another factor of the round-the-clock forced labor of management personnel was the pressure on those folks to maintain a healthy family life. Many management families suffered divorce and huge amounts of stress due to the slave hours the foreman and general foreman had to work. I guess they began to understand mandatory overtime isn't as great an idea as it sounds.

The Aftermath

The strike was settled in late April 1980. The union won that strike, it didn't give up one major concession. I vividly remember returning to work and in my department, the general foreman and foremen were all there with happy faces, shaking our hands, and both sides were relieved that the sad days were over. At least we thought they would be over. It was not to be.

Two of the first things that came to pass were: 1) The layoff of all workers with less than a year of service; and 2) The summary firing without advance notice of those previously promoted management workforce. Often the foreman was told upon arrival at work, "Don't even change your shoes. You're out of here!" as they were escorted by security officers to their personal items and back out the door! That ignorant policy was followed by a freeze of all staff and management personnel salaries. It set the stage for the final act of destruction.

The list of acts of destruction that the strike had caused were: 1) The loss of $4 billion dollars in orders; 2) The business ranked at #2 in the industry before the strike was now ranked at #10; 3) The stock price dropped from about $50 a share before the strike to less than $4 a share towards the end. This caused many retirees (workers, staff, and management) that had no part in the strike to lose a major amount of their retirement income. It also indicated the deep financial despair the company was now in. 4) The morale of the foremen and general foreman was down considerably and quality with production began to suffer again.

In just a few months after the strike, I was earning more money than my foreman. What incentive did that leave for him/her to manage properly? It was obvious that the company was heading for really bad times in the not too distant future.

I decided to purchase my first computer in June 1980 partly to see if I could use new skills in case my job ended. In early 1981, I was one of two employees out of my 275-man department that was asked by management to participate in a meeting between the plant manager and workers. It was a frank discussion and it demonstrated to me what the temper of the contract negotiations should have been like. But then again, these were management and workers who had a vested interest in keeping the company successful, unlike an outsider like Archie, brought in at million-dollar salary and bonuses to be an ax-man. The meetings turned out to be too little, too late.

In late October 1981 I got laid-off. In the early years after my lay-off, some of the people I had worked with also laid-off committed suicide from the stress. Others suffered divorces. Some of the management I knew died from heart attacks or other ailments.

Archie McCardell was fired by the company in 1982 for his errant judgment and forced to return some of the money paid to him. He got off easy for contributing the major source of blame to bringing a great company down, in my humble opinion. To me he was like the guys that ran Enron into the ground decades later. Stupidity and greed have their impacts at the top on thousands of people who were just doing their jobs.

Lessons Learned

I learned that communication is the key to good relations. Honesty and doing a job well are important factors in employment. I learned to look for signs of the Archie and Brotherhood mentality types wherever I worked in the years that followed. They are still out there because I've ran into them in the years since. Nowadays we know some of them as the former leaders of Mortgage Loan companies, Realtors, Wall Street firms, Banks, Auto companies, and some Unions. The actual list is longer than mine.

I strongly believe the IH strike could have been avoided through honest, respectful negotiations. I know this because of the way both sides welcomed each other back with open arms after the strike ended and those management meetings I participated in. That is the biggest takeaway from the experience, respect one anther's position in the company. Living through one of those unfortunate strikes in life is enough.


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