Aug 30, 2022 6:12 PM

Life on the picket line

Posted Aug 30, 2022 6:12 PM
 “Party on the picket line and you’re not invited.” Striking union workers continue to hold the line outside of the CNH Industrial plant in Burlington. Photo courtesy of Keith Turrill.
 “Party on the picket line and you’re not invited.” Striking union workers continue to hold the line outside of the CNH Industrial plant in Burlington. Photo courtesy of Keith Turrill.

By Michael Anderson
for The Beacon

A giant rat joined striking union workers for a barbecue outside the CNH Industrial manufacturing plant on Monday evening, Aug. 22.

The occasion? Nothing in particular.

Other than that spirits are high, the strike goes on, and after nearly four months on the picket line, the union shows no sign of backing down.

“I think [management] just thought we were going to bow down and take it,” said assembly-line worker and strike organizer Tracy Chew. “They were wrong.”

On May 2, Chew was one of more than 1,000 skilled laborers who walked out of their jobs at the Case plants in Burlington and Racine, Wis.

About 445 of them work locally, 430 of whom have union representation through the United Auto Workers Local 807.

Their demands have remained the same since day one: higher pay, robust health insurance, a path to retirement, and better vacation policies.

Several rounds of negotiations have come and gone over the past 16 weeks. Neither the company nor the union have budged.

A CNH spokesperson could not be reached for comment at press time.

The strike will end, UAW Local 807 President Nick Guernsey said when the company agrees to his members’ demands.

“We want to be treated fairly,” Guernsey said. “We’re holding the line.”

With snarling lips, outstretched claws, and bloodshot eyes, Scabby the inflatable rat towered at the corner of Des Moines Avenue on Monday — the 112th day of the strike–greeting replacement workers as their shifts at Case ended around 6:30 p.m.

“Scabby on the picket line!” one of the strikers chanted through a megaphone at the South gate as she and her fellow union members blocked the replacement workers from leaving.

“Party on the picket line, you’re not invited.”

Derided as “scabs” by the union, the replacement workers were hired at the beginning of the strike to keep the manufacturing plant operational.

Things got heated between the two sides in the early days. Lately, the strike has fallen into a calm and steady routine.

Every day, teams of strikers post up on the picket line in four-hour shifts at the CNH facility’s multiple gates.

Their goal is to raise awareness in the community and disrupt business as usual.

Whenever a vehicle attempts to exit the plant, the strikers will block them, marching back and forth with signs and megaphones in their hands.

They’ve agreed with the authorities to limit these stops to two minutes per vehicle.

Mostly, though, the strike is a waiting game. Traffic thunders by. The cicadas buzz in the grass. Time marches on.

“I’m ready to get back to work,” said Scott Newman. “We all are.”

Newman, 61, has worked in repairs at Case New Holland for 12 years. His partner on the picket line was Jack Kay, a 41-year-old welder, and father of two who’s been on the job for 11 years.

The way they see it, the strike isn’t just about them. It’s about protecting the wages and benefits of whoever works at CNH after they’re gone. For Kay, it’s also about setting an example for his kids.

“This gives them a better understanding that there’s stuff out there to fight for,” Kay said.

It was noon, halfway through their shift at the West gate, when a UAW truck pulled up to the curb, and a to-go box emerged from the passenger window: Spaghetti.

“First time we’ve had that,” Newman said with a note of pleasant surprise.

The lunch came from the strike kitchen across the river in Gulfport. They usually send sandwiches, Newman explained.

The union has all kinds of supplies stockpiled there at the old firehouse for workers feeling the pinch. Can’t afford groceries or school supplies for your kids? Stop on by, and the strike kitchen will fix you up.

Sharing resources and helping each other out — it’s all about solidarity, Chew said.

“Brother for brother,” she said. “Sister for sister.”

It was solidarity that brought Ryan Drew to the picket line.

“The community has been too quiet,” he said, adding that he’d like to see more elected officials throw their support behind the union.

Drew works with the International Union of Operating Engineers 150, which successfully negotiated a contract agreement on behalf of workers at the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant.

He came to support the UAW strike, along with Jack Nye, who works with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“[Case] is just trying to create economic hardship for its workers,” Drew said. “That’s not negotiating.”

CNH has cut off health insurance to its workers in Burlington, and many union households are feeling the financial squeeze. The UAW has agreed to pay major medical costs and $400 a week plus $500 at the end of the month — in exchange for a four-hour shift on the picket line, but it’s not enough.

To get by, some of the strikers have taken part-time jobs at places like McDonalds. Others have walked away from Case and found better work elsewhere.

Several UAW members have also passed away during the strike. According to Guernsey, the company has refused to pay out life insurance to the families.

“It’s a sad deal,” Guernsey said. “Whether you get what you want or not, a strike is a really traumatic ordeal.”

Still, the atmosphere was light and festive outside CNH on Monday evening.

As the sun set, a replacement worker pulled up to the picket line at the South gate.

He put his truck in park, like he knew he might be there awhile, and ate from a bag of potato chips as the strikers marched back and forth in front of him.

Stacey Pence, who has worked at Case for 10 years, held a megaphone up to her mouth and said, “Will you share your chips with me?”

The replacement worker didn’t respond.