Let’s just talk

Let’s just talk
Date June 07, 2004
Section(s) Columnists

By Peter Hussmann
Editor

Note: This column was originally written on Thursday for Friday’s edition. Due to Maytag’s announcement of a major restructuring on Friday morning, it was held and updated, to a small degree.

It’s little wonder that at least some Maytag production employees feel ready to throw in the towel, concede to whatever demands the company is making at the bargaining table and hope like hell they even have a job come Christmas time. They’ve been told they’re a wasteful, sloppy, dangerous, overpaid, thankless lot for so long the thought is beginning to take hold. The primacy of perception in action.

For the past five months, Maytag company officials have been involved in a calculated effort to tell the community — and the whole investment world, for that matter — that major changes in the areas of cost, quality, safety and production delivery need to be made at the Newton plant or some dire consequences might follow. (What the exact consequences are, however, have never been stated. It has a stronger impact that way.)

Maytag CEO Ralph Hake began the perception-control initiative in comments to the financial community following the release of year-end results in January. Hake, in his remarks to investors, specifically noted the significance of labor contract negotiations between the company and UAW Local 997 and the impact it has on the preservation of jobs in Newton.

“Especially at Newton, we will be examining, with union leadership, how that plant can become more cost effective and competitive so that they may again become eligible for new product platforms and preserve jobs,” he said.

Former Maytag Appliances President Bill Beer continued the onslaught during his late winter tour of the Newton civic club circuit.

“WE USE THESE performance criteria (cost, quality, safety, delivery) as the basis for our decision making on where we make capital investments and where new product platforms go,” he said reiterating Hake’s comments. “In general, the Newton laundry facility has challenges against these performance criteria compared to the others. Newton has not been selected for our last two laundry launches, the Neptune TL (Florence, S.C.) and the Drying Center (Herrin, Ill.).

“As it stands today, Newton is not eligible for new product platforms. There will be no new launches here.”

And then there was Maytag’s successful handling of the union contract at Maytag’s Hoover operation to hold over the heads of local workers.

The Maytag CEO has repeatedly lauded the action taken by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for opening its contract and agreeing to concessions after Maytag threatened to close its North Canton, Ohio, Hoover facility. The agreement, Mr. Hake said, is a “model” for future negotiations with other labor groups within Maytag’s fold.

“We are very pleased with the open-minded support from union leadership at Hoover,” Hake told investors last January. “Because of the courage demonstrated by both union officials and Hoover employees, North Canton now has a chance to compete in a very tough environment. Their actions are a model for the compromises that are required in the face of imported products coming from low-cost countries — a model for the preservation of jobs and facilities that can effectively compete. I believe that North Canton, through the dedication and hard work and application of lean principles by all of the employees there working together will not just survive, but prevail.”

Former Hoover Company President Tom Briatico said, “The new contract is a positive development and helps both the company and employees by better positioning us to compete in a global floor care environment.”

The union president also weighed in.

“This is an opportunity that we had to keep the doors open here,” said Jim Repace of the IBEW Local 1985 when the contract was ratified last December. “This could be a model here for what’s been done for other manufacturers across the country.” (Maytag went so far as to bring Mr. Repace to the company shareholder meeting in Newton last month where he was introduced and received a nice round of applause for helping to bring about the new contract.)

The campaign has obviously caught the community’s attention. Talk to nearly anyone outside the UAW sphere and the general consensus is that the workers would be fools not to agree to whatever contract conditions Maytag sets. Workers should just shut up and be thankful they might continue to have a job, though no guarantees are included in what they might sign. If they don’t give concessions — like they did 10 years ago when Maytag pitted Newton against Herrin for production of the then-new Neptune — Newton will dry up and blow away. And it will be their fault. Talk about a heavy load.

THE SITUATION SHOWS just how far things have changed for the working men and women in America today. Sympathies lie, rather than with those who toil in the heat of the factory floor, who do most of the living and dying, working and playing in town and are a major element of the community, but with the corporate board room and its ability to please the bulls on Wall Street.

Obviously, as the poet Dylan forecast decades ago, the times are changing and efforts need to be made to meet the new dynamics. But he also offered words of warning to those caught up in the swirl. Blind allegiance to those offering up their innocence can get repaid with scorn. Those bargaining for salvation can be given a lethal dose.

Talk to a Maytag worker and they will tell you all they want to do is work. They want a little respect for what they’ve done to make Fred Maytag’s farm-machinery-turned-washer-company money over the past 100-plus years, they want a wage to enable them to live as part of the middle class and they want benefits sufficient to ensure their family’s security. They’d beg to differ with the descriptions being used to define their current performance and say those on the other side of the bargaining table — by lack of listening, indifference or purposeful intent — have placed them in the situation in which they now find themselves.

As can be seen, Maytag set the stage for the current contract talks some time ago. But while Maytag invited the world along to the table of public perception, it wasn’t until recently that the UAW leadership was invited to participate at all.

By all appearances, the talk has been one-sided.

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