WWW Strike Continues

August 22, 2003
| By Katy Rent |
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ROCKFORD — It has been just over a month since employees at Wolverine World Wide’s Rockford tannery began striking and things are not looking up in the company’s negotiations with the union.

Following two months of negotiations, Wolverine’s tannery workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local Union 600A, rejected the company’s final contract offer and immediately went on strike on July 17.

“It’s unfortunate that we are experiencing a strike at our Rockford-based tannery,” said Bob Sedrowski, vice president of human resources at WWW. “This is the first work stoppage we’ve had in over 20 years.”

The company’s offer would have allowed employees to continue working without a contract, but the union rejected that offer. The union leadership has been publicly expressing concern about a subcontracting proposal, which the union claims is designed to eliminate the tannery workers’ jobs.

“Over the past several decades the U.S. footwear market has migrated from one denominated by domestic production to a market where over 97 percent of the footwear consumed is manufactured in factories outside the U.S., with Asia accounting for more than 75 percent of the pairs produced,” said Steve Duffy, executive vice president for Wolverine.

“The impact of this shift in production can be seen in the dramatic decline in U.S. footwear production and factory closures which have occurred over the past decade. Despite this trend, WWW continues to operate its Rockford-based tannery where the company makes its signature performance suede leathers.”

Sedrowski said that the subcontracting language WWW has on the table is virtually identical to language that the same union agreed to in 2001 for the Rockford Distribution Center.

He noted that the union bargaining committee knows that the company has had to ask for language clarification to clarify its right to continue past practices and to allow for future flexibility because a previous arbitration ruling required this clarification.

“We believe that the union leadership’s real problem is the company’s unwillingness to enhance its pension program. The fact is, we made significant improvements over the past several contract negotiations resulting in a very good retirement program, which includes a defined benefit pension program and a long-standing 401(k) plan,” said Sedrowski.

“In combination, these programs provide a retirement program competitive with that of other major, unionized and non-unionized employers in the Grand Rapids area.”

Wolverine also said it was sympathetic with the desires of its more senior employees that pension benefits be increased yet again. However, it explained to the union in detail that it was not the responsible thing to do in light of current economic conditions.

He said he was also disappointed at what appeared to be a coordinated effort by certain union officers to threaten returning workers that the union will demand they will be fired when the strike ends.

He added that Wolverine withheld hiring any striker replacements for nearly the first two weeks of the strike but also encouraged strikers to cross the picket line and return to work if doing so was in the best interest of their families.

“We’ve advised everyone who worked for us before the strike and who has elected to return to work that this is a violation of federal law for the union to threaten to have them fired when he strike is over, let alone for the union to actually ask us to help them break the law in that way,” said Sedrowski. “We’ve filed a complaint about this with the National Labor Relations Board and we are asking it to order the union to cease making these outrageous threats. We also think the union should issue back pay to anyone who was intimidated from coming back to work because of these unlawful threats.”           

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