Racine County has been in the news lately in connection with the great Foxconn give-away, or rip-off if you prefer. Back in 1991, though, the city of Racine was the location of a rather nasty strike at Rainfair. The mostly female workforce stayed out, braved “permanent replacements” and eventually successfully settled the strike.
It might be just another nasty, forgettable episode in the long history of class conflict in America, but rumor on the street was that Management’s aggressive stance was not entirely a result of the company’s circumstances but rather that Wisconsin’s business community had decided it was time to tame the union movement. If you take the long view, this strike may have been the start a long process culminating in Governor Scott Walker and his ilk.
The two articles below were published in the Winter, 1991, and the Spring, 1992, issues of New Ground.
It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall
by Bob Roman
A small civil war is simmering just across the Wisconsin border in Racine. It is there that the 136 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 187 have been on strike against Rainfair, a manufacturer of rain gear. The mostly female employees of Rainfair have been on strike since June 20, after the company provoked a strike by presenting a final offer demanding unreasonable concessions from their workers. The average wage of Rainfair workers was $6.60 an hour. The company demanded an increase in employee co-payment of health insurance to over $100 a month, the elimination of two paid holidays, and the scheduling of weekend work without overtime pay. Since the strike has begun, Rainfair has hired 72 scabs as “permanent replacements”. The strike is widely seen as the opening move in a statewide campaign against organized labor.
Labor has good reason to be worried about this skirmish. Racine is a small industrial town with a population of some 80,000 just south of Milwaukee. It’s a union town, but it’s also a company town. The economy is dominated by Johnson and Johnson. Rainfair is owned by Craig Leipold, a relation to the Johnson family by marriage. While Racine is the Johnson family’s home turf, the family’s influence extends far beyond the town’s borders. In Wisconsin in particular, the family is part of a network of interlocking directorates among a wide variety of corporations. The word on the street is that the Johnson family has been pushing a “get tough on unions” line in the corporate boardrooms that they inhabit. The IAM and UAW have contract negotiations coming up next year with some of these companies.
It’s not just the union bureaucracies that are worried. The membership is worried and angry too. There’s been no problem in recruiting support for the Rainfair workers from the rank and file of other unions. For example, one day recently some 500 members from the Communication Workers of America showed up at the plant gate, surprising pickets, police, and scabs alike. The police, of course, regarded the event as a “riot” and the company lawyers are attempting to use it as justification for an injuction limiting picket line activities, but the unions do have difficulty in telling their members to be non-violent. It’s becoming dangerous to be a scab in Racine.
These “permanent replacements” were the occasion for a march and rally in Racine on Saturday, October 5th. The demonstration was organized to support the Rainfair strikers but also to demand the override of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson’s veto of Wisconsin legislation which banned “permanent replacements”. A small, hastily recruited delegation from Chicago DSA attended the rally.
The rally was coordinated by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Some 700 people attended the rally, representing an impressive list of unions: AFGE, AFSCME, CWA, IAM, IBT, USWA, and UAW to name just a few of the more obvious. Eleven speakers exhorted the crowd to support the strikers and to lobby both state and federal legislators on anti-scab legislation. Some speakers were very good and some were not, but it didn’t seem to matter. The crowd’s spirit seemed to carry each speaker regardless of ability.
But two speakers deserve special mention. One was Jane Brosseau, who represented the Racine chapter of the National Organization for Women. She began by stating that she was talking to the women of the labor movement and the female strikers at Rainfair. This was an immediate turn-off for much of the crowd. In particular, the small but vocal delegation from the Teamsters was not at all impressed, and began talking loudly amongst themselves. But they didn’t talk for long, because they quickly perceived that Brosseau’s message was a union message: that the fight at Rainfair was important because it was a fight for equality; the women were not working for “pin money” but to support their families. By the end of her speech, Brosseau had earned the crowd’s enthusiastic approval. The other speaker of note was Illinois’ own Congressman Charles Hayes. Despite all the militant talk and demands for justice, it was Congressman Hayes who brought upt the idea of class conflict. He did it deftly, without jargon; the crowd knew exactly what he was talking about and they approved.
It’s hard to convey the spirit of the rally. Mostly it was a feeling of intense togetherness with an edge of nervous worry and anger. But there was something more. Frank Klein, a staffer with the ILGWU, observed that the labor movement is something of a counter-culture in America. The sociologist in me wants to substitute “subculture” in this observation, yet there is a romance to the movement that is instantly obvious to an aging hippie. On the final chorus of “Solidairity Forever”, the low drizzly clouds finally and decisively broke. The rally was flooded with sunlight. It may not have been Woodstock, but it sure felt like it.
Return to Rainfair: Solidarity Works
by Bob Roman
The ILGWU strike against Rainfair, reported in the last issue of New Ground, was settled on December 20. All the striking workers returned to work with a 20 cent per hour raise and a limited health insurance co-payment. The settlement is being credited to labor solidarity.
While the strike took nearly six months, the settlement reached would probably have been acceptable to the employees had it been offered to them within the first few weeks of the strike. It was only the bloody-minded anti-union attitude of the Rainfair company that kept the conflict going. It was this hostility set against an underpaid, mostly female work force represented by a small union that made the strike a perfect metaphor for the state of labor today. Sensing a public relations bonanza, the AFL-CIO started to mobilize its resources in support of the strikers.
One has to wonder at the stupidity of the Rainfair company. Most of its product is used by police, firemen, letter carriers and the building trades. Faced with the prospect of a labor boycott, Rainfair’s distributors made it very plain to the company that its goods were not worth the hassle: If a boycott developed, the wholesalers were not going to continue distributing Rainfair products. Faced with this prospect, Rainfair’s effort at union-busting collapsed, even to the point of returning production shifted elsewhere to the Kenosha plant and bringing back all the strikers. The only face the company saved was the retention of at least some of the “permanent” replacements.
The scabs do not seem to have a long life expectancy. This is not because the ILGWU is particularly interesting in running them out of the plant but rather the circumstances of work at the plant. Some of the scabs were only interested in earning Christmas money and not much interested in continuing to work past the holiday. Others had become accustomed to the lenient working conditions during the strike and were not at all prepared for the strict workplace discipline that is normal to the plant. And finally, while the “market place” does not highly value the work of the employees, it is not an unskilled occupation. These “new” employees just do not have the skill necessary to keep up with the older employees.
The strike has also had beneficial consequences outside the ILGWU. At least one Wisconsin employer, U.S. Can, has begun contract negotiations early specifically to avoid a strike. What was intended as the opening move in a campaign to break organized labor has ended in something of a retreat.
At the same time, solidarity often seems to be given more lip service than concrete application. It is true that at least part of the Rainfair victory is due to Capital’s ill-considered choice of a battleground: a company whose product is used mostly by unionized employees at the workplace and whose plant is located in a solidly union town. But rightly or wrongly, many other unions have been considerably less aggressive in soliciting outside help. It’s worth asking to what extent this is a considered judgement based on the “objective” political situation and to what extent it is that solidarity is a lesson that must be continually relearned.