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A walkout ends, and strikers find a changed world

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ADAM GELLER
October 17, 2009
— By 10:30 a.m., the lot at Disabled American Veterans Post 19 is nearly full, and a table spread with potato salad and Port-a-Pit chicken beckons.

The only thing missing is a banner, mutters one of the workers inside the rental hall to another: "Welcome to Our Last Supper."


This is a gathering to mark the end of a 40-month fight over who owns the craftsmanship that gives life to a factory floor. These men and women logged decades pressing, soldering and buffing making trombones and trumpets of such sinuous precision they are called the Stradivarius of brass.


In the end, though, there is no music.


"Lord God, you know what the plan is for our lives," Bertha Carpenter prays as fellow workers bow their heads. "And let us be ever grateful."


This is the story of a decision of 234 workers, one company and countless consequences.


Back when times were good, many Americans made decisions that seemed like sure things. Millions of families gambled their homes, betting prices could only go up. Others bet their retirement security, banking on the stock market.


But workers at the Vincent Bach factory bet on what seemed like much more modest expectations. When they walked out on strike, they had no get-rich-quick illusions. At best, the thinking went, if they stuck together they'd keep hold of their prized rung on the economic ladder.


They bet their jobs on it.


Today that bet is being called. But like Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years and came back to a place he barely recognized, the men and women of Bach return to a vastly different landscape than the one they left behind.


And from here, there is no going back.


___


There's a good chance you've heard of Elkhart. Over the last year, the city of 52,000 along the St. Joseph River gained notoriety even the most desperate chamber official would never have dreamed up: It became a poster child for the recession.


Millions across the country lost jobs, but Elkhart was slammed by the nation's largest jump in unemployment. By this spring, one in five workers were out of a paycheck. Many of the factories that made it the capital of recreational vehicle manufacturing shut down. Twice during his campaign and twice since, Barack Obama came to Elkhart County to spotlight the nation's economic despair.


But this story begins in a very different Elkhart, one that can be hard to remember.


Back in 2006, that Elkhart was singled out by a Federal Reserve economist as one of the Midwest's "jewels in the rust." Unemployment hovered just above 4 percent. The RV plants were hiring and the money was good.


Times were so good, Stacy Curtis recalls, that you couldn't walk into a restaurant on a Friday night and not expect to wait half an hour for a table. The Elkhart Truth printed columns of want ads.


But on the floor of the Bach factory there was little, if any, talk of going elsewhere for a paycheck.


Bach, a squat cinderblock building set back from Industrial Parkway's elbow-shaped bend, looked like just another factory. But two things made it a special place to work the interlocking relationships of the people inside and the nearly timeless craft they practiced.


The place was like a big family, workers say, and it's no exaggeration.


Stacy Curtis followed her dad in to Bach, where she met husband, Steve, one of the buffers blanketed in red dust her father supervised. Brad Milliken hired in as a janitor and night watchman at 17 when his dad put the good word in, then did the same for younger brother, John, after he got a promotion.


Job openings at Bach were guarded like secrets, not least because of the pay. In a town where 45 percent of all jobs were in factories, Bach paid near the top. By 2006, the average worker made $21 an hour.


But the family sensibility went beyond the paychecks.


On Fridays, workers circled around covered-dish lunches on the shop floor. On birthdays, they serenaded each other on whatever instrument was within reach. They took up collections for retiring workers, who were presented with bud vases made from a trombone mouthpiece.


Bach was equally bound by pride. Others factories could build cars or computers to spec. But how many of those workers could call themselves craftsmen?


In the music world, Vincent Bach is synonymous with cornets, trombones and, especially, trumpets. Bach made horns for all wallets, but the showpieces were its Stradivarius trumpets: gleaming, curvaceous beauties commanding $2,500 or more from orchestral professionals.


"Once you got done with an instrument," Jeff Hoogenboom says, "it was like a jewel."


That pride reached back to the 1920s when the original Bach, an Austrian immigrant, set up shop in New York. He was so certain of his trumpets' superiority he named them for the world's most legendary instrument.


"The Stradivarius Model C trumpet is the finest C trumpet ever produced," Bach's first catalog boasted in 1926. It "has a bright brilliant tone which strikes through the fortissimo playing orchestra like lightning through the dark sky."


Bach sold his company in 1961. The new owner moved it to Elkhart, the center of the trumpet and tuba trade long before it became the RV capital. By the 1970s, Elkhart factories supplied 40 percent of the world's band instruments.


At the new plant, work went on much as it always had sheets of brass pressed one at a time, bells shaped on mandrills inherited from Bach himself.


But the company and the world around it began to change.


In 1993, two investment bankers who'd previously worked for junk bond king Michael Milken acquired Bach's parent firm in a leveraged buyout. Two years later, they bought famed piano maker Steinway & Sons and merged the businesses under the Steinway name, creating the nation's largest musical instrument manufacturer.


The new owners pushed to speed production. They eliminated the plant's saxophone line, cutting the union work force from 450 to 234. The company was making money, earning $13.8 million in 2005. But executives were wary of Chinese producers, whose $200 trumpets targeted the large student market.


The message was clear in "town meetings" president John Stoner called on one of the plant's loading docks: Change was not a choice. Stoner infuriated some workers, worker Dave Barany says, telling them: "We have the equipment. We own your skills."


The company would not comment for this story, but its demands were clear. On the final day of their contract in March 2006, every worker returned home to find a letter from Stoner.


Bach was losing money on its student instruments. An Asian manufacturer was offering to take over for a fraction of the cost.


"This opportunity for dramatic savings has created a dilemma for me personally and the Company," Stoner wrote. "If we outsource the student line instruments, it will only be a matter of time before the step up and pro lines are similarly affected. So while I would prefer to keep work and jobs at Bach, we cannot and will not do so if it means we produce instruments at a loss."


The company demanded cuts that would drop average pay $6 an hour. Workers would pay more for health insurance and overtime would be mandatory, a requirement some called a "family killer."


On a Saturday morning April 1, 2006 workers gathered to respond.


"We hollered and hollered and said, 'Hell, yeah,'" Stacy Curtis says.


The vote was 185-37. The strike was on.


___


The first night on the picket line an icy wind whipped down Industrial Parkway. Strikers huddled around burn barrels. But the mood was upbeat and more than a little ornery.


In a shop where even the youngest had 10 or 15 years in, most recalled the only other recent strike a walkout in the early 1990s that lasted just eight days. Back then, Stacy Curtis' dad, a supervisor who remained in the plant, would open the door and wave to her on the picket line.


This time would be different, they knew. Friends in management had warned workers to be prepared, to salt away their cash.


"We know exactly where the pressure points are on the union. They know where they are on us," Steinway CEO Dana Messina told Wall Street analysts soon after the strike began.


Many jobs in the plant took months to learn and left supervisors struggling. Without them, workers joked, the company would be reduced to selling inferior "musically shaped objects." If the company didn't value them, they'd take their skills somewhere else.


"We were craftsmen," says Jerry Stayton, then the president of United Auto Workers Local 364, which represented the workers.


Some workers thought the strike might end in as little as two weeks.


"If we're out here two months, I'll be surprised," Stacy Curtis told herself.


A few days after the strike began, the company flag went missing from atop the pole and a Chinese flag flapped in its place. The company dialed the police the first of 314 times they'd be called in.


But police would not resolve the strike. Workers built plywood sheds along the right of way. They rotated in for picket duty around the clock, bringing along children in their pickups, gathering around TVs powered off generators, holding fish fries.


After 32 years at the plant, John Milliken felt almost giddy. Now the trumpet assembler had mornings to savor breakfast with his wife and daughter. He joked with his brother on the picket line. Co-workers kidded him when he showed up on a bike. But Milliken marveled at the smell of the lilacs along the route and the weight he was taking off from the exercise.


In early June, negotiators came back with an offer including buyouts, but it was rejected by all but four workers.


Ten days later, the company announced it was hiring replacements. A fight broke out between strikers and a car full of men come to claim their jobs. Stacy Curtis had a friend teach her to swear in Spanish so she could yell in two languages at replacements headed in to the plant.


Then, with tensions rising, the two sides grasped at compromise one many workers now say was probably the best chance to end the strike. The offer called for workers to return at wages capped at $21 an hour, along with pricier insurance and mandatory overtime.


"We should accept this and live to fight another day," Stayton, the union president, told workers from a microphone at the front of the DAV hall.


The sticking point was the workers who had taken their place. Company negotiators said they'd be let go, but few believed them.


"Get it in writing! Get it in writing!" strikers shouted. A few minutes later, they voted the contract down. Midway through it's fifth month, the strike was no closer to resolution than the day it had begun.


___


Criticism of the strike was growing and it wasn't confined to the letters to the editor in the paper.


It was hard enough for Stacy Curtis to talk about the strike with her father, the career nonunion manager. But the couple hadn't expected it would be so difficult to justify it to their son, an Army recruiter, and their daughter in the Air Force.


"The girl just asked me today, 'Why are you all still talking about this?'" Stacy says. "I said 'Stephanie, you just don't understand.'"


It wasn't any easier for Tim Heminger, an instrument assembler with more than 18 years at the plant. Heminger, who drove in from a conservative Michigan farming community, was caught off guard when his minister began lectured him on the wrongness of the union.


"My blood pressure rose up," Heminger says. "I finally said you know we need to change the subject or I'm going to say something I'm going to regret saying."


At weekly meetings, the union handed out $200 strike pay checks. It also picked up workers' health insurance a critical safety net on Labor Day when Steve Curtis' heart gave out on the picket line.


But for workers who'd expected the walkout to last weeks, money was growing tight.


Stayton, who'd long worked a second job, took on more hours at Star Tire, fueling criticism from fellow strikers that he wasn't giving enough time to leading the local. In January, Brad Milliken found a job sweeping floors at a cargo trailer factory.


But the place was dirty and the work was hard. Brad was a good 20 years older than most other workers. Some called him the "retiree" sticking an expletive in front to make clear they meant no respect. The strike was a year old and John Milliken could see his brother was unhappy. He had no idea.


On April 10, the brothers longtime fans of Notre Dame women's basketball joined a crowd of 400 for the team's annual banquet and took their seats. Brad turned to John.


"I don't want to make you get sick here," he said.


John looked at his brother, confused, waiting for an explanation.


"I'm going back in," Brad said.


Brad Milliken was hardly the first. For months a small but steady trickle of workers had been crossing the picket line and returning to their jobs, winning scorn from strikers left behind. Milliken was "Scab No. 37."


John understood Brad's reasons. He still loved his brother. But that didn't make the decision easy to stomach. Brad had long enjoyed a friendship with Stoner, the company president. The younger Milliken, though, was increasingly furious at management for ruining the plant and the lives of its workers. "Thugs," he called them. He'd never go back.


Brad returned to find parts for 1,200 Stradivarius trumpets stacked up, waiting to be assembled.


Meanwhile, at the Curtis house, Stacy and Steve examined their expenses. NASCAR tickets would have to go. So would vacations and dinners out. They canceled rental of their weekend spot on a Michigan lake, sold the golf cart and the camper.


"The running joke was that we were all going to live in strike sheds," Stacy Curtis says.


Thanks to a judge's injunction, workers were restricted in the numbers they could deploy to the picket lines. The strike settled into a holding pattern. The peace didn't last.


Replacement workers called the National Labor Relations Board. With the strike entering its 19th month, a vote was set on whether the union would continue to represent plant workers. But the calculus had shifted.


Strikers lined up to vote. But so did replacement workers, inside the plant. When some strikers reached the table they were told their vote might not count because their jobs had been taken.


Workers' anger was also finding another target the union itself, which they blamed for poor representation and counsel.


At the same time, the company was learning to live without the strikers. Steve Curtis found work at E.K. Blessing Co. one of a handful of instrument makers left in town then discovered his new employer had a contract from Bach to make trumpets. He was assigned to other work, but it left him uncomfortable.


Then again, at least he had a job.


___


Early on, work after Bach was relatively easy to come by. But by the summer of 2008, Elkhart's strength the RV factories was turning in to a painful weakness.


Families had once road-tripped to Elkhart to choose a customized home on wheels. But the recession was taking hold and as consumers cut back, they crossed RVs off their lists. Lenders cut credit to manufacturers. Dealers slashed orders. Plant after plant Odyssey Group, Pilgrim International, Monaco Coach sent workers home and shut down lines.


In months, unemployment doubled. By this spring, the area jobless rate reached 18.9 percent. Within Elkhart, it neared 21 percent.


John Milliken was certain: The strike was long beyond resolving. When he got an offer to be a custodian at Northridge High School, he was grateful. At $13 an hour, it paid much less than Bach. But benefits were generous. After the plant's swelter, the school's air conditioning was wonderful. For the first time in years, he felt like the people he worked for accorded him respect.


Steve Curtis, laid off from another horn maker, grabbed a friend's offer for 20 hours a week in his instrument repair shop.


But the odd jobs that had kept third-generation bellmaker Steve Kiefer afloat vanished. When his 1988 pickup broke down, he couldn't afford to fix it. He fell behind on his mortgage and began thinking it might be better to let the bank have the place.


On the strike's third anniversary, workers gathered at the pavilion in Elkhart's McNaughton Park. Too much time had passed for a rally. They called it a reunion. But between the speeches, talk at the tables was full of apprehension.


The battle would be decided by the vote. After months of lawyers' arguments, federal inspectors tallied up ballots 113 to get rid of the union, 107 to keep it. But eight ballots enough to swing it either way were still contested and uncounted.


On Monday, Aug. 4, strikers were back on the picket line when cell phones began to ring. The ruling was in. The ballots of two strikers James Klein and William Seigler would not be counted because they had been replaced.


After three years, four months and four days, there was nowhere to go but home.


"It's over," Stacy Curtis told Steve when she found him at work. "It's over."


___


Before the last meal is served, buffers and bellmakers cluster anxiously around a health insurance salesman's table in one corner of the Veteran's hall. Workers with gray hair pull chairs alongside one another and concede they were only a few years from retirement anyway.


But for workers in their 40s and 50s, it's not nearly so clear.


A few call Brad Milliken: "Hey, can you get me in?" Even that wouldn't turn back the clock. Two weeks after the strike ended, managers summoned workers who crossed the line and cut their pay. Brad, who made $24.50 an hour before the strike, is down to $17.


Others see their best chance beyond Elkhart. Deneen Stout, just divorced and with a new associate's degree, figures she'll move away and find a job as a medical assistant.


"Don't put any dates or years on your resume," she counsels former co-worker Chuck Miller. "That way they can't date you. I learned that in college."


By noon, workers are filtering out, carrying leftover chicken in foam boxes. But Stacy Curtis is not quite ready to call it over.


She points her pickup back down Industrial Parkway for the first time in weeks. In front of the Bach plant, she passes the one remaining testament to the past three years a light blue mailbox strikers put up when the picket line became a second home and slows to tally all the empty parking spaces.


But now she's seen enough. She gives the F-150 a little gas. Down the street, she's heard, a warehouse is getting ready to open. Maybe they need a worker with experience. She might as well ask.



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