News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lullaby for Scabland?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's stripping of the rights of public employees to collectively bargain was just one of the measures he took in turning the state over to corporate interests.  In his "open for business" campaign, he also signed off on tax breaks for corporations and took steps to eliminate environmental rules, which corporations don't like to be bothered with obeying.

The efforts to destroy labor unions and devalue the Wisconsin labor force has had destructive consequences for the public image of Wisconsin. The efforts by government mesh with what has taken place with labor in the private sector.

Along with the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin dairy products, and leadership in conservation and environmental programs, Wisconsin is home to the Harley Davidson brand.  Although that brand is in the process of rebuilding after some downturns that coincided with the Great Recession, it has begun to lose its luster among its customer base.  The people who have made the Harley Davidson motorcycle the machine of choice are American laborers who make up a majority of its biking fans.  Although the bike still enjoys a demand, some dealers are hedging their futures by lining up other brands. 

Last summer, Harley Davidson threatened to close down its operations in Wisconsin and move them to Kansas City if it did not get concessions from the labor union.  It got them.  They include a seven-year wage freeze, with the possibility of pay raises, and higher health-care expenses. The new contract also calls for the use of seasonal, or "casual," employees who would not be entitled to medical or retirement benefits and would receive less pay for the same work done by regular, full-time employees.  The union also wanted assurances that the company would make efforts to keep jobs in Wisconsin, but received only oral assurances that no one believes mean anything.

While the struggle between the Wisconsin Republicans and the unions was revving up in February,  Harley Davidson obtained more concessions from its workers in Kansas City.  If it was not granted the concessions, the company threatened to move its Kansas City operation to York, Pa.  Currently, it has 685 full-time hourly unionized employees but will probably be reduced to 540. The company expects to add 145 flexible positions that will be filled by union members, but they will work only as required to cover increased production or to fill in for other employees on vacations and other absences.  Harley Davidson won similar concessions from its York, Pa., employees after threatening to move the York operation to Kansas City.

Interviews with employees in Wisconsin and Missouri indicate that they made the concessions to keep their jobs at a time when the unemployment rate made finding other work unlikely.  Labor analysts point out that what the company lost in its maneuvers was a work force that took pride in the brand and company and will now work for  mainly for subsistence, without much interest in company or product.  Harley Davidson has in the past advertised that it has a unique relationship with its employees, treating them like family, and that employees are among its most enthusiastic customers.  Its threats to close its plants if concessions were not  made have changed that relationship.  

Market analysts say that the attitude of  workers toward the employer will have an effect on the laboring people who make up the primary market for its motorcycles.  A dealer in the upper Midwest says when the working people lose their respect for a company, brand loyalty suffers.  

Harley Davidson dealers are not permitted to sell competing brands of motorcycles.  Some have expressed some concern about the employee attitudes, which one dealer said might be reflected in his service department.  He got into an argument with a lead mechanic who he spotted on a poker run riding a bright yellow Honda.  This, he said, was a departure from the relationship Harley Davidson had tried to cultivate with its customer-employees.

Harley Davidson's changing relationship with employees illustrates the trend that Gov. Walker and the Republican Party are pushing in Wisconsin.  Harley Davidson has bragged that it does not sell mere products, but sells a lifestyle.  If the Governor and his supporters have their way, the traditions of Wisconsin and the lifestyle it created will change drastically.  

Wisconsin will simply be a competitor to supply cheap and voiceless labor.  It's open for business, and in the minds of many, the Governor has sold out its working people.  They think you may as well buy Japanese and Chinese and Indian rather than products from a local scab economy. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States