For Chambersburg strikers, a third Labor Day on the picket line 260 have become outcasts in their anti-union town

September 07, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- It's not much, an eyesore, really -- plastic-covered lean-to, two old barrels and some rusty pipe fashioned into a wood-burning stove for cold nights, a cracked podium, chairs, a soiled bouquet of silk roses, a dirty American flag.

But, for the 260 members of United Auto Workers Local 695 who have been on strike for nearly 2 1/2 years, the lean-to collection is their sanctuary. They come here not only to maintain their picket, but also to renew their strength and commitment to a labor action that has made them outcasts in their own town.

As they reach their third Labor Day on strike, they say they have become victims of anti-union sentiment in Chambersburg, 20 miles north of Hagerstown. That sentiment, they say, pervades the country.

"Our government is against unions," says Walt Klenzing, president of Local 695. "If we were in Poland, they'd be over there helping us, preaching solidarity."

The workers went on strike April 30, 1990. They voted by a slim margin, 152-140, to reject the contract offer of their employer, T. B. Wood's Sons Co., which makes parts for equipment in heavy industry.

The strikers set up their ragged picket post between the sidewalk and street at the main entrance to Wood's. They say they have maintained the picketing 24 hours a day for the entire two years and four months.

When Local 695 went on strike, it had 323 members. Mr. Klenzing says about 30 have crossed the picket line and gone back to work, and that 25 to 30 have retired. Five have died.

That leaves about 260 who have maintained the strike and manned the picket line. Most have managed to hold their lives together.

"It's been devastating, that's for sure," says John Miller, 34, who worked at the plant 12 years before the strike. "But I think most of the guys have gone through that.

"It made a lot of guys do a gut check on the personal things in their lives. It's like any kind of hard times. It either kind of tears you apart or, in the end, it makes you stronger."

Mr. Klenzing says a few strikers have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or separated from their wives in cases where the husband wanted to stick with the strike and the wife wanted him to cross the picket line.

"But we've also got some wives who'd hang their husbands if they crossed the line," Mr. Klenzing says. "It seems to me the guys are determined to stay out as long as it takes."

As long as it takes, he says, is until the plant closes, until the owner sells out, or until he takes back all of the strikers.

"He" is Thomas C. Foley, an investor from Connecticut who bought the company in December 1986. Before that, it had been family-owned and family-operated since 1857.

Michael Hurt has been president of T. B. Wood's Sons Co. since January 1991.

Nine months into the strike, he says that Mr. Foley is "probably one of the most compassionate people I have met in his relationships with people and how people should be treated. To paint Mr. Foley as a private investor who came in and destroyed the company is totally erroneous."

But that is pretty much the picture union members paint. They say the company under the Wood family was a fairly pleasant place. It sponsored softball and bowling teams on which the rank and file played with management.

Upper management then consisted of people who had started as laborers out of high school and worked their way up through the company, strikers say.

Mr. Foley changed all that, union members say, by getting rid of experienced managers and bringing in college-educated managers from out of town.

"They knew it in the book," says Mr. Miller, who operated a grinder next to the foundry. "But they never knew it down on the floor."

Morale began to sink.

In April 1987, four months after Mr. Foley bought the company, his negotiators sat across the table from UAW Local 695 negotiators.

According to Mr. Klenzing, president of the local, company negotiators said in general terms: We've got a new manager, the economy isn't too good, he needs a break, and if things get better maybe he'll give you a break later.

The union accepted a three-year contract with no raises. The company did pay each member a bonus spread over the three years. Morale plummeted during those three years, union members say, mainly because of poor management.

In 1990, the company offered a 50-cent-an-hour raise in each of the next three years. That wasn't enough for members who expected a payback for the previous contract.

But by then, Mr. Miller says, money wasn't the main issue.

"It was more of an attitude strike," he says.

Mr. Hurt says the contract was "very fair and, in some cases, more than competitive against the competition in this industry."

One of its main features, he says, was the company's continuing to pay full medical benefits.

The contract was "sabotaged by hotheads of the union," he says. They intimidated members, took charge of the balloting and conducted a shoddy vote, he says.

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