JANESVILLE

Hufcor laborer Mike Gackstatter is 56 years old, and he has worked at Hufcor’s Janesville manufacturing plant since he was 22.

It’s possible that Gackstatter will have to find a new job when Hufcor begins to shutter its moveable door systems manufacturing plant in early August in a pending move to Mexico.

The labor union that represents Gackstatter and other plant workers at Hufcor vowed at a rally Thursday in the parking lot of the manufacturer’s Kennedy Road plant to fight the planned permanent layoff of 166 plant workers as labor negotiations are set to continue.

Locals jobs analysts say Janesville’s labor market has become hungry for workers, but some Hufcor employees say they’re worried about losing salaries and benefits that some have spent decades cultivating.

The Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America Local 84811, the local union that represents most plant workers at Hufcor, declined to disclose details of its negotiations over the pending closure and layoffs.

But according to a government notice filed this week by Hufcor, the company’s ownership intends to move ahead Aug. 3 with the first wave of layoffs of manufacturing employees at the plant, most of them union laborers.

That announcement comes after Hufcor’s ownership confirmed The Gazette report late last week that it intends to keep its customer support and research and development operations in Janesville but shutter all its manufacturing here.

The plant’s union says OpenGate Capital, the Los Angeles-based private equity firm that bought out Hufcor in 2017, now intends to move production to Monterrey, Mexico, a strategy that would essentially outsource Hufcor’s entire global production footprint outside of the U.S.

It would spell the end for Hufcor of what has been a 120-year run of manufacturing in Janesville.

As of Thursday, OpenGate still has not publicly confirmed it is moving Hufcor’s Janesville operations to Mexico.

Gackstatter said his job fashioning door openings on moveable wall sections at Hufcor has helped him put two of his three children through college.

He said he is closer to retirement age than some Hufcor workers and worries about younger co-workers with families who rely on a job at Hufcor that he said is “good paying with great benefits.”

One such co-worker, he said, is a cancer survivor who is in the process of adopting three children. For that worker, losing a job and health benefits could be devastating, Gackstatter said.

“Maybe he’s got family that could help him out. Maybe not. I really don’t know,” Gackstatter said.

OpenGate hasn’t yet given a date by which production in Janesville would cease completely. The number of layoffs would represent the biggest single dislocation of local workers since General Motors closed its Janesville vehicle assembly plant in 2009 during the Great Recession, according to Rhonda Suda, the head of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board in Janesville.

That closure affected about 1,300 rank-and-file employees and indirectly meant the loss of at least 1,000 related jobs held by workers of other local companies involved in GM’s supply chain.

At the Hufcor rally Thursday, union officials and activists, including former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, said OpenGate’s plan to shutter its plant has some parallels to GM’s decision to pull out.

Cullen, who has written a book on the closure of the Janesville GM plant, said he believes GM’s move of production to Arlington, Texas, was more tied to an aging GM plant in Janesville and less to the “quality of the workers” here.

“My advice to OpenGate is to come to Janesville, get three or four employees who work here (at Hufcor) and talk to them one on one. You’ll find out this is a place who believes in good performance by employees,” Cullen said. “All they (OpenGate) know about Mexico is they’re going to be able to pay workers less. That’s all they know about Mexico.”

Cullen and a half-dozen others spoke Thursday to about 120 plant workers at the rally who stood among a giant, inflatable corporate “fat cat” shown choking an inflatable, rank-and-file laborer. Nearby, two men held a huge banner decorated to depict OpenGate as a vampire-like entity with red eyes, red claws and bloody fangs.

Both displays were meant to cast OpenGate as a private equity firm with a global reach but without loyalty to Janesville.

OpenGate has drawn criticism for abrupt closings of other companies it has bought in Wisconsin, including the 2013 closure of a dairy in Waukesha that left workers without severance pay for nearly eight years.

A spokesperson for Hufcor and OpenGate told The Gazette last week that among the main drivers in the decision were a major downturn in the moveable door market brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact Hufcor’s 40-year-old plant on Kennedy Road is aging.

In an emailed statement Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil said he stands behind Hufcor workers, calling the employees part of the manufacturing “lifeblood” of Janesville and the state.

Steil, a Republican who has a background as a corporate attorney for a Milton plastics manufacturer, called on statewide employment and economic development agencies to meet with Hufcor workers to assist those whose jobs are at stake.

Suda, the workforce development board leader, noted that, unlike in 2009 when GM closed, the local and national economies aren’t in a severe downturn.

Job growth is expected to pick up this year as the U.S. emerges from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, and already, Suda said, state jobs databases show there are more than 8,000 area job openings available this month at a time when there are about 4,000 local workers registered as unemployed.

She said some local industries are starving for new hires. She said some of those companies have told her group they would view the prospect of Hufcor closing as a boon for their own hiring needs.

Earlier this year during a Forward Janesville conference call on the local job market, an analyst said some local manufacturers on average have begun to offer $15 to $16 an hour to lure new workers.

Suda said her board has offered outreach to Hufcor to help workers learn whether state dislocated worker programs might help them and whether their skills might fit local job openings available now.

Other workers might need to be retrained or learn new job skills through state programs, Suda said.

Gackstatter said he worries that, with or without retraining, he and other workers who have spent decades building a manufacturing career at Hufcor might have to start from scratch in a new industry and begin climbing the ranks from the bottom.

“I’ve got nothing against fast food restaurants, but if those jobs are one of the main things left for people like me, what difference does it make if there’s six jobs open for each person looking for work? For what it’d pay, I’d have to get two or three fast food jobs.” Gackstatter said. “If local jobs like mine all disappear, is that all that’s going to be left for people?”

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