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.
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.”