The labor union that represents workers at Janesville’s Hufcor factory is now pressuring Hufcor owner OpenGate Capital with a shame campaign that is playing out in Los Angeles, OpenGate’s corporate home city.
The Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America paid to publish an open letter to OpenGate Capital CEO Andrew Nikou in an advertisement that printed Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times.
The union represents about 160 workers in Janesville whose jobs are at stake as OpenGate, a private equity firm, plans to idle Hufcor’s Janesville plant and move manufacturing of moveable door systems to Monterrey, Mexico, later this year.
The ad in the L.A. Times is the latest move by the union and a group of Wisconsin labor advocates to bring wider attention to the factory jobs OpenGate plans to start eliminating in Janesville as early as August.
The ad, titled “An Appeal for Justice,” asks OpenGate to reconsider its plan to cease production in Janesville. It is undersigned and endorsed by 36 labor advocates and Democratic Wisconsin politicians, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and state Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville.
“We have seen that your private equity company has a track record of buying businesses—in Wisconsin and throughout America—then closing them and damaging local economies for the benefit of your investors,” the ad reads.
In public layoff filings and written statements to the media in May, OpenGate said Hufcor took a global financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and that is what led the company to a plan to idle the 40-year-old Janesville factory.
A Hufcor spokesperson told The Gazette in an emailed statement Thursday that the company plans to keep its research and development, testing, and customer service operations in Janesville but that the manufacturing division in the city will be relocated.
OpenGate previously took heat for its abrupt 2013 bankruptcy shuttering of a Golden Guernsey dairy plant in suburban Milwaukee that left plant workers locked out of the factory and forced them to wait years to receive full severance pay.
A one-time lawmaker who also signed the ad was former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen. Initially he said he advised the union it might be more fruitful to push OpenGate officials to travel to Janesville and arrange a sit-down with local Hufcor workers.
Hufcor is one company in a large portfolio of industries that OpenGate owns as investments.
Cullen said running an ad in the L.A. Times was an aggressive and “unusual” move by the union and its regional labor activist supporters.
“They’re taking more of a hardball position with that ad,” Cullen said. “But I’m all for their effort to try to stop them (OpenGate) from moving Hufcor jobs. I’m all for them.”
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based labor advocate who is involved in the union campaign to fight OpenGate moving Hufcor. He said the ad, which the union and its supporters had asked statewide lawmakers and other supporters to sign, is one facet of a campaign launched by a coalition of groups that is called “Wisconsin United for Justice.”
Bybee indicated the ad in the L.A. Times is an attempt to put OpenGate’s planned shutdown in Wisconsin on a national stage—and to park the issue right in front of people in OpenGate’s home city.
The campaign includes videos posted to the web site “Save Janesville Jobs” that share Janesville Hufcor workers’ fears over losing their jobs. That is alongside recent protests outside the Hufcor plant and an online petition drive aimed at letting Hufcor workers and Janesville residents address OpenGate directly.
The ad itself informs OpenGate that its plans to move Janesville jobs to Mexico is a “prime example” of why members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, namely Baldwin and Pocan, are working to refresh the proposed “Stop Wall Street Looting Act.”
It is a bill first introduced during Donald Trump’s presidency that seeks to force private equity firms and hedge funds to assume more risk in the companies they buy up as investments. The bill, among other reforms, also would press private equity firms to assume more liability for their employees’ futures if the equity firms decide to pull the plug on a business property.
Bybee called the Wisconsin United for Justice campaign “one of the more significant fights against abuses by private equity firms in the country right now.”
He said labor advocates often mount opposition to such moves by private equity firms only after closures or shutdowns put employees out of work. In this case, the labor groups’ opposition comes before OpenGate’s final decision on the future of Hufcor in Janesville.
That’s something Bybee said OpenGate “isn’t accustomed to.”
“There aren’t that many fights on the ground where working people and communities directly affected are fighting back the way the unions in Janesville are. The struggle by the (Hufcor) union in Janesville raises the stakes and the profile of fights against private equity firms,” Bybee said. “That’s what makes it unusual.”
A study commissioned by the city of Milton found that the city would be best served financially by a fire and emergency services merger with the city of Janesville and that extending the merger to surrounding towns would help the city save even more.
A representative of the Wisconsin Policy Forum that conducted the study presented it to Milton city officials Tuesday night. The forum analyzed three scenarios: The city of Milton having its own standalone fire department; the city of Milton merging services only with the city of Janesville; and the city of Milton merging services with the city of Janesville and four more surrounding towns.
The analysis found:
The analysis did not attempt to sort out ownership and future disposition of capital assets, did not consider station upgrades, and did not consider impacts of new union contracts or pay scales.
Chris Lukas, who has served in top posts in the Milton and Janesville fire departments, on Tuesday said he appreciated the report.
When the city and town of Milton started with shared services with Janesville in 2017, he said he worried that people would think all the fire department’s problems were solved.
Call volumes are high and the resources of both fire departments are stretched, he said.
Lukas said he supports as many full-time employees in stations as possible.
“I would like to see some good discussion,” he said. “I would really like to see the town (of Milton) and the city (of Milton) come back together and even get some of the fire departments that are involved in some discussion and let’s talk about this, let’s see where we can go.”
The town of Milton, which operates the Milton Joint Fire Commission with the city, has been exploring other potential emergency services solutions.
“I think one of the points that the report’s trying to drive home is that communities need to work together and help each other out,” Lukas added. “If two can do it, why not three? Why not four? ... I think we started out moving in a good direction and kind of broke apart. I would really like to see everybody sit back down at the table and move forward.”
Milton Mayor Anissa Welch said the city is willing to try new ways of delivering fire and emergency services.
“I think if we wanted to throw in the towel, we would have given our notice to dissolve the agreement with the town of Milton on June 30. ... I don’t think anybody from the city has closed any doors on anything,” she said.
Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said the city needs to choose its preferred path forward.
“That’s going to be the most difficult part of this conversation,” he said. “How do we make that determination? Do we discuss pros and cons? Are there alternatives within the options?”
The shared services contract between the Milton Joint Fire Commission and the Janesville Fire Department ends at the end of the year, he said. And in about three months, the city needs to prepare a budget.
“We need to choose a preferred model, and we need to do that sooner rather than later,” he said. “We kicked around with it at the fire commission level for nine months, votes were taken and then it all came undone. We can’t afford to do that again.”
Garth Landquist Chambers Sr.
Lee V. Gilkey
James W. Hudson
William P. “Bill” Jezo
Alan Evans Kemp
Marilyn Jean (Simonson) Klassy
Barbara J. Kronquist
Donald Scott Miles
Patricia Lynne Rasmussen
Justin W. Rogers
Terry S. Schachtschneider
Helen Agnes “Ag” Schumacher
Julia Ann (Quimby) Stainbrook
Steven E. Walkowicz
Growing up in Janesville, Janie Donaldson Mullen was in awe of her fashion designer mother. As a child, she quickly learned to sew and was taught pattern making by her mom. When she grew up, Mullen became a secretary after college. But she quickly realized it was not for her.
Her mom encouraged her to do something she knew well.
“You know how to quilt. Why don’t you get yourself a quilting machine and finish other people’s quilts for a living?” Mullen recalled her mother saying.
Mullen started quilting professionally in 1980 and since has become wellknown in the quilting world. In 1989, she won best in show at her first quilting show in Milwaukee. That success led to her demonstrating her skills at several quilting expos and co-hosting “Quilt Central TV,” which aired on public television stations. The show was taped in Paducah, Kentucky, from 1999 to 2008.
“They called me the ‘Martha Stewart of the quilting world’ because of my background with my mother and creating patterns,” Mullen said. “I could create whatever content they needed. In a few minutes, I could come up with a purse pattern to show on television.”
Though fame was not her goal, she said she couldn’t go to a quilting event without being mobbed for autographs.
“I was not prepared for that,” she said. “That wasn’t what I was seeking.”
In 2006, Mullen decided to slow down and took a year off. She moved from Paducah back to Janesville to be near family. After the break, she took jobs at Quilt EZ Company in Salt Lake City and Burnina Sewing Machines in Switzerland. Both companies required Mullen to travel, but she always came home to Janesville.
At her store, Quilt Central Academy at 1800 Humes Road, Mullen demonstrated how to operate a long-arm quilting machine, which can “punch in a pattern size and run automatically.”
The shop is her third and the second in her hometown of Janesville. Her first shop was in Paducah. She currently owns just the one on Humes Road.
Paducah hosts major quilting expos, is home to the National Quilt Museum and has been dubbed “the quilting capital of the world.” But it was back in Janesville that Mullen wanted to pursue her passion, opening the store seven years ago.
At the shop, Mullen gets help from her husband David, store assistant Terri Williams and quilter Vicki Freed.
“Terri runs the store,” Mullen said. “We take the (long-arm) machine out to trade shows and convention centers in the U.S.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, all quilting shows have been canceled or moved online. Some of those events attracted 20,000 to 40,000 people, Mullen said. Now, with vaccinations on the rise, some quilt shows are returning.
“We just came back from Schaumburg, Illinois, which was a wonderful show,” Mullen said last week. “We’re headed in a week to Akron, Ohio. There’s a large show there, the Original Sewing & Quilt Expo, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that the attendance will be good.”
Mullen’s main goal for 2022 is to see Janesville host a quilting show.
“I want to speak and bring other quilters that are on my level of knowledge,” she said.
Since permanently relocating back to Janesville, Mullen has become intimately involved in the local quilting community. At the center of that community is the Rock Valley Quilters Guild, established in 1980.
“The first year there were a total of 35 members,” said Linda Scott Hoag, a guild member for 30 years and the current president. “At our highest, we’ve had about 200 people. Over the last couple years, people have come from Illinois and Dane County. It’s open to everybody with an interest in quilting.”
Membership now stands at 153, Hoag said.
The guild is comprised of smaller study groups of five to 15 people who meet at Quilt Central to sew and chat.
Guild members have not met in person, however, since COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Its first “hybrid” meeting—including both an in-person meeting with others joining online—is Aug. 17 at the UAW Local 95 Hall in Janesville.
The guild is involved in a great deal of charity work, which involves darning Christmas stockings, giving away quilts to nursing homes and making newborn baby incubator covers for local hospitals.
“We ask guild members to do a community service project, like donate quilts to Rock County Human Services or a youth family program,” Hoag said. “Lots of people will make quilts for local hospitals and emergency rooms because kids come in suffering trauma. ... That’s a big part of our mission.”
At meetings of the guild and at Mullen’s Quilt Central Academy, you might see a variety of quilts displaying traditional or modern styles.
Hoag said she has seen guild members work in both styles over the years.
“It’s all very different,” Hoag said. “The majority of our members embrace both. Some traditional patterns are used in modern ways.”
The variety of styles in quilting reflects a demographic shift in who has taken up quilting over the past 10 years.
“The old-time traditional guilds do not allow babies or children in strollers at their meetings because they give education presentations and don’t want to be disrupted,” Mullen said.
Yet many of the more modern-style guilds are filled with young moms and dads who need to bring their children to meetings.
“We are seeing that the traditional quilters, who are grandma and grandpa age, are migrating over to the modern guilds because there’s so much happening there,” Mullen said.
Counting herself among the veteran quilters, she said, “We’re the heroes. we bring the special scissors and the machines. We loan stuff, and we’ll rock the baby while you sew.”
No one expects the younger quilters to follow age-old rules, Mullen said, because their quilts are artistic creations of their own making.
The Mad Mod Quilt Guild in Madison is the nearest, strictly modern quilting guild in Wisconsin. Yet its president, Tara Curtis, said, “There’s definitely overlap between the membership of traditional guilds and the modern guilds because people have a pretty wide range of aesthetics.”
According to Curtis, traditional quilting is often discernible by its repeating patterns. A quilt that mixes the modern and traditional will play more loosely with fabrics and colors. A fully modern quilt tends to resemble a canvas on which an artist has stitched a picture. Quilters in either camp might play with negative space so the observer is unable to discern distinct quilt blocks within the final piece.
Whichever style they use, quilters make what they make out of a love for the craft and the community that supports it.
Mullen said quilting is more than a pastime or a hobby.
“When you’re a quilter, you look like a quilter. You carry tote bags and have a stash of fabric and a sewing area. (Quilters) are a social group, and they gift things,” she said. “That’s considered a lifestyle.”