Work stoppage worries York

Some residents fear striking Harley workers are risking long-term job security

February 14, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

YORK, Pa. -- Mention Harley-Davidson in these parts, and you hear both pride and envy from the people of this city and region.

Pride that Harley's mammoth factory here has a big part in making one of America's most iconic products. Envy that the workers who assemble the company's most popular motorcycles here have such a good deal.

Now a plantwide strike has brewed resentment among some in this community, who say the workers already have good salaries and generous pension and health care benefits. They worry that the strike could cost York the factory and so many good jobs.

Harley workers and many of their supporters, in turn, say corporate greed is at the heart of this labor dispute and they just want what's fair for current and future employees.

Not only has the strike - which heads into its second week - disrupted the lives of about 2,800 union workers, but it has also had rippling effects on other manufacturing jobs in the region and on communities as far away as Wisconsin. The Milwaukee-based company on Monday temporarily laid off 440 employees at plants in that state's north-central and southeast regions, where motorcycle parts including engines are made. And at least three York County, Pa., suppliers have laid off workers because of the plant shutdown.

With Harley workers saying they will stay on strike as long as it takes to win a fair contract, many townspeople are uttering a two-word refrain: Remember CAT. As in Caterpillar, the heavy-equipment maker that pulled out of town after nationwide strikes more than a decade ago and took more than 1,000 jobs with it.

"When we were growing up, CAT was the big company. When CAT left, Harley took over," said Deb Downs, 50, a stay-at-home mother who with her husband, Mark, a teacher's assistant, grew up in York. "They should think about it - [other] companies have [left]. That could easily happen to Harley because they have other plants."

The fact that residents here have hung onto the memories of Caterpillar is a reminder of the community's rich manufacturing traditions and fears of worse-case scenarios when labor disputes turn nasty. There have been no real threats that Harley would close the York plant, but that hasn't stopped some residents from worrying about its future given the recent animosity between workers and management.

While Harley workers are receiving some community support, unions do not have the same kind of backing they once enjoyed. Union membership has declined over the years, and a growing number of workers have been forced to contribute more for health care benefits and shoulder greater responsibility for their retirement savings.

The motorcycle factory is so closely identified with York and its namesake county that few outsiders know the plant actually sits on a sprawling 230-acre campus in neighboring Springettsbury Township. The factory, established in 1973, makes about 60 percent of the company's bikes, according to some analysts, including the popular Touring and Softail models.

"People in York consider themselves Harley supporters and fans," said Janis Rozelle, 64, a retired disability lawyer and wife of longtime city Councilman W.M. Lee Smallwood. "People love Harley. If it's gone, it'll be a blow to our identity. York peppermint pattie is gone. Caterpillar is gone. We lost a lot of things in York. We don't want to lose another."

Like many once-powerful industrial cities, York, an hour north of Baltimore, has seen its share of manufacturing jobs vanish in the past decade as companies have shut down or relocated abroad. From 1990 to 2005, the York-Hanover metro region lost 10,300 jobs in the manufacturing sector, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

While the economy has recovered over time, the emotional impact on the region has been harder to forget, said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania, a trade group that represents about 400 companies.

Caterpillar closed its York plant in 1996, several months after union members locally and nationwide ended a 17-month strike. The company said the plant was not competitive.

"The economics of that is long gone, but the emotional scar is still there and very deep," Smeltzer said.

Manufacturing is still an important sector, representing about 20 percent of York County's work force with 38,400 jobs in 2005. Harley-Davidson is the county's second-largest employer with 3,200 union and nonunion workers. And Harley provides some of the best-paying jobs, with salaries 40 percent higher than the average manufacturing post, Smeltzer said.

Harley workers reject comparisons to Caterpillar, whose workers - represented by the United Auto Workers - demanded more while the company was struggling financially. Workers here say they are not asking for more but fighting cuts in their pension and health care benefits as well as a two-tier pay system that would divide workers.

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