A Reportback from a Kansas Mutual Aid member
from the Goodyear Workers' Action
By Dave Strano, KMA
On Saturday December 16, 2006, five members of the Kansas Mutual Aid Collective based out of Lawrence, Kansas traveled along with two other Lawrence revolutionaries to nearby Topeka, Kansas. December 16 had been called as a "Day of National Action" with striking Goodyear workers, and the workers at the Topeka plant had announced a day of picketing and leafletting at a Goodyear Service Center at 21st and Fairlawn Streets in South Topeka.
Since October 5th, over 1,300 workers from the Topeka Tire Plant have joined with over ten thousand other workers in a strike that has crippled Goodyear's tire production. The United Steelworkers of America, the union that represents the tire workers, called the strike after repeated failures over negotiating a new contract with Goodyear. Goodyear workers had been working without a contract since July.
Concerns with Goodyear's treatment of employees include the cutting of retiree benefits and pensions, the closing and outsourcing of several production plants, and the threatening of worker healthcare. Goodyear is the largest tiremaker in North America and Latin America and is the second largest tiremaker in Europe and has reported increased earnings in the millions since at least 2003.
With this information in mind, and with a two day notice to try to organize some folks from Lawrence to go, the seven of us headed down to Topeka to lend some solidarity and meet with some of the workers.
The demonstration occured outside a Goodyear Service Center in South Topeka, with nearly one hundred picketers gathered on all four corners of the nearby intersection. The Topeka Local had organized two other protests indentical to this one in other areas of Topeka, with equal or greater attendance, and had also sent members to Kansas City for other actions outside Goodyear stores. We were assured over and over again, that although there were hundreds of USW members and supporters at other locations, the picket lines outside the Tire Plant were strong, despite a court order limiting the number of picketers outside of the plant to 25.
We were greeted with smiles, handshakes and rowdy hugs as we entered the picket line. We displayed a large sign that read "The workers of Lawrence support the workers of Goodyear." We were easily accepted within the crowd.
As we quickly found out, the USW workers were not the only ones on the picket line. Many retirees were out with their families and friends. The USW estimates that there are 1,385 Goodyear retirees in Topeka currently. One of the main facets of the strike centers around these retirees. Retirees currently pay $32 per month for health care, but that could shoot up to more than $1,000 per month for a pre-Medicare age retiree or several hundred dollars for a post-Medicare age person if Goodyear's proposed contract becomes binding.
The single major concern among workers assembled in South Topeka, was not retiree healthcare, however, but the signaling by Goodyear of the first phase of plant closures and relocations to developing countries. This may be one of the first strikes in the United States that has brought together workers from across the country in a united effort to save two plants. Although Topeka isn't on the chopping block and is listed as a "protected plant", the Topeka workers are standing strong in an effort to save the jobs of their fellow workers.
Two plants; one in Tyler, Texas and another in Gadsden, Alabama are being threatened currently, and have been kept off the "protected" list. Workers there fear the plant relocating to China or another developing nation.
This issue was an interesting one to discuss with the Topeka workers, particularly from an Internationalist standpoint. The signs that some of the workers held were very telling of the false-Nationalistic "Jobs for Americans" mentality held by Union leadership and others. The signs bore a background of a Chinese Flag and made mention of Goodyear trying to lay off American workers. The signs played right into an anti-Chinese worker mentality, as well as an anti-immigrant hatred that has been formenting amongst the U.S. white working class for centuries.
These signs were "official" USW signs, which workers told us were shipped from the USW headquarters for use. In fact, on the back of each of the signs was a list of "picket do's and don'ts", and rules for interacting with people and demonstrating. Far from being a set of practical legal guidelines for workers to follow, the list of rules included things the workers were allowed to talk about and not allowed to talk about, and even what to say about them. These rules seemed to indicate a general distrust of the rank and file membership of the union to not "screw up."
However, upon conversation with the workers we actually had a chance to speak with, almost all of them displayed a keen understanding for free trade policies and how they affect workers not just in the U.S., but also Mexico. One worker I spoke with named Calvin, a military veteran that has worked for Goodyear for thirty years, explained that he didn't fault the Mexican workers for taking jobs from the U.S., but instead faulted "the rich assholes in Washington and Mexico City." "The workers of Mexico have it worse than we do," he said. "Their entire economy was crushed by NAFTA, much more than ours has been yet. No wonder they come here for jobs."
Most of the workers I talked to were veterans. Most had seen combat in Vietnam and had been employed by Goodyear since just after the war ended. In a telling example of how many of the Union's members had seen military service, when I asked one of the stewards about the strike headquarters being allowed on the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) property next to the plant, the steward responded with, "We are the VFW here."
Several hundred workers at this plant are involved in the manufacture of tires for U.S. Military vehicles. Since the strike, the numbers of tires heading to the military has fallen rapidly. The scab labor that Goodyear has brought in to the plants sends more reject tires to the dumpsters than they actually send out for distribution. It's estimated that Goodyear is running at below 10% of its normal production rate, sending shocks through the automative industry as well as the U.S. Military. In fact, this week, media reports started to indicate that the Military might take a very active role in trying to break the strike, with court orders and other means if necessary.
Despite their connections to the Military, every worker I talked to agreed that the war in Iraq was a mess, and almost all said we had no business being there in the first place. Coming from the mouths of veterans in the middle of an almost purely "Red State" like Kansas, these comments were indeed a surprise. The attitude of "support our troops, but not the war" was evident in their words. While I wouldn't call these workers "anti-imperialist", their understanding of the connectivity of the war and their own lives was clear. The government and corporations are hording power and wealth in Topeka and Baghdad, while the workers lose their homes, their healthcare, their pensions, and their jobs. Time will only tell in how the Goodyear workers will react to a back to work order of the Military becomes involved.
After spending over an hour on the picket lines outside the service center, we Lawrence folks packed up our signs and headed over to the strike headquarters, a trailer parked on VFW property directly adjacent to the Goodyear plant. We drove past the picket line outside the gates and the workers cheered as we honked, waving their "Death to scabs" signs.
At the strike headquarters we dropped off a large box of food that had been gathered back in Lawrence and also some strike money we were able to raise for the workers. The food and money was met with sincere thanks and smiles, and the workers in the trailer showed us the stacks of food and other items that local businesses and workers had dropped off for them as well. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of community support for this strike, with dentists even offering free emergency dental care for striking workers and their families that have been left without a dental plan.
We left Topeka shortly after dropping off the supplies. We currently intend on trying to bring speakers from the Union to Lawrence to speak on the issues that have led to the strike, and continue to raise money and other forms of support for the strike from here, especially from working class people in the East Lawrence neighborhood where many of us live.
Reflection, thoughts, and concerns
The Goodyear strike is an important strike for all workers and anti-capitalists to support, as it is a strike that is symbolic of the major assaults on workers across the country. Issues pertaining to retiree benefits, healthcare, and job relocations are emerging in every industry and in almost every community in the U.S. A victory for the Goodyear workers would definitely be a victory for all workers, and would be one of the first major victories for workers nationwide in years. One of the last nationwide strikes dealing with issues such as these, the strike by communications workers at SBC in 2004, ended in a very minor victory for the workers and at great expense to their unions.
The USW is definitely a strong union that has proven capable of taking on a corporate giant like Goodyear. The union members we spoke with believe in their union leadership and feel very much a part of the process and feel that they have a real voice within the union.
There are at least two facets of the strike that elicit some major concern from myself and others within KMA: the exploitation of nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies and beliefs among primarily white U.S. workers and the poor, and the new patriotic militarist mantra coming from the leadership of Local 307 in dealing with the Humvee tire issue.
The union, through signs, e-mails, and other communication, has tried to build fear of international workers stealing jobs from Americans. The consequences of this ideology are numerous, but in the immediate term, they play right into the hands of White Supremacy and racism that has historically plagued the white working class in the U.S. If there is to be a true victory in this strike, and a victory that will reverberate among all workers in the U.S. and even the world, there must be a clear denunciation of white supremacy and instead an embracing of organizing with all workers struggling against the bosses and the rich. Internet discussions with at least one organizer within the National USW have indicated a positive development in that area, describing the union's work with Latin American rubber workers in solidarity with the strike happening here. Again, only time will tell what will develop in this area. The USW, however, should immediately discontinue use of their signs displaying the Chinese Flag in a way that invokes anti-communist and anti-Chinese hysteria.
A new and major concern to myself and others in Lawrence is the defense of militarism by the USW Local 307 leadership in statements made against Goodyear in the last several days. Since the U.S. Miltiary was quoted as stating that it might get involved in efforts to end the strike, the strikers, understandably and rightfully, have shifted the blame of the situation to the Goodyear company. It's Goodyear's fault that the troops are getting shoddy or inadequate supplies of tires for the vehicles. As veterans, the workers have a interest in the soldiers not being endangered by the tires coming out of the Goodyear plant. Far from being a pro-war, pro-militarist standpoint, this is (from my viewpoint) an understandable statement of class solidarity with working class people tricked into serving a military intent on getting them killed. However, the statement that has appeared on Local 307's website is disturbing at best:
Many of our members are Veterans. We are more than willing to do our part to provide our soldiers with the best equipment possible. If Goodyear would dismiss the temporary workers in Topeka, within hours, the company would have had a crew of experienced United Steelworkers in the plant to make sure the needs of our troops were met. Goodyear declined, saying that it had an internal meeting and concluded that they can meet the needed production demand and the situation is "under control."
This statement indicates that the USW Local 307 leadership would be prepared to send workers back to work even without a contract or any resolution in the strike, as long as the scabs were fired. This would be done in an act to appease the U.S. Military's demand for Humvee tires. This standpoint is nonsense and counter-productive to the strike's efforts, as it would alleviate pressure on Goodyear to resolve the strike, and it would mean that Union members would cross their own picket line. If Goodyear workers want to support the troops, they should be demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and holding corporations like Goodyear truly responsible for the war and war-profiteering but refusing to manufacture tires being sent to Iraq. If the workers decided that the war really was against the interests of the working class and poor of Topeka and around the world, then the best option to force Goodyear to the table, and to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan(thus saving the lives of countless Iraqis, Americans, and others) would be to refuse to manufacture those tires at all.
Kansas Mutual Aid will continue to stand in solidarity the workers of Goodyear, with a critical but supportive eye. This strike is about much more than Goodyear. This is about all of us.