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On the Line with Striking Machinists

by | Apr 24, 2022 | Labor, News, Spotlight

This piece was drafted on March 25, when Maine DSA members joined the picket line in solidarity with striking machinists at Cummins Inc. Pine & Roses is happy to report that after nearly two months on strike, the workers voted to ratify a new contract on April 8 that achieved a number of their demands. Chief among these demands was guaranteed annual pay raises, instead of subjective and unfair “pay-for-performance” policies management wanted to implement. Workers also achieved more paid holidays, discretionary leave, increased on-call pay, a good benefits plan, and more. They proved that when workers come together, and stick together, they can win. Please enjoy this piece written before the end of the strike. 🚩

 

For six weeks in February, nearly a dozen workers with the Machinists Union Local 447 in Scarborough, Maine went out on strike against the Cummins Corporation, an Ohio-based company that services and manufactures engines. Union workers at Cummins shops in Concord, New Hampshire and Dedham, Massachusetts include road technicians and engine upfit technicians, who have been working for years, some of them decades, to ensure that diesel engines and backup generators across Maine and New England continue to run when the power grid fails. Without them, hospitals, nursing homes, veteran’s homes, schools, data centers would all go dark and stay dark during an electrical grid failure; patients and residents would be forced to evacuate. These workers have dedicated their care, attention, and expertise to ensuring the functionality of these critical components of our society’s infrastructure. In return for their labor, the company offered workers a contract that didn’t return the love. Workers took a strike vote and, two days later, on Valentines Day, they were out on the picket line. 

The workers had asked for wage increases that would keep up with inflation (7.9% for 2021) but the company insisted on implementing a merit-based system of pay that would allow the company to arbitrarily determine worker’s wages based on how the company subjectively measured their performance. The company refused to guarantee that workers’ wages would match with inflation, but it was more than willing to brag on its website about its earnings report for 2021, when workers produced $24 billion in revenue for the company, 21 percent higher than 2020. The net profit for the company was $2.1 billion, up from $1.8 billion the previous year. The company made $394 million in the fourth quarter alone, yet, with all this capital, the shareholders were unwilling to share barely any of this with the workers. 

Don, who works in the parts department and has worked at the company for twenty years, talked frankly about how he felt about the strike. “They are so corporate, they are so big, that they don’t care about the worker now. All they care about is their profit and they want to keep it all to themselves. And they hand out as little as they can to the ones that earn that money for them. That’s the way I look at it. We helped them earn that money, and they don’t even want to give even a little bit of it back to us as an appreciation for what we did for them.” 

Workers are not only the core source of Cummins massive profits, but the labor these workers do is also critical to the functioning of our economy in Maine and New England. Forest equipment, drill rigs, cranes, big rigs, fishing boats all have Cummins engines in them. Doug, a service technician who has worked for Cummins for seven years, and who has forty years of generator maintenance experience, says the job is strenuous. “If it has a Cummins engine in it, then we have to fix it in the field. We work outside year round… so when it’s twenty below zero we’re out there fixing them. If you got three jobs scheduled, and it’s pouring rain, and it’s five degrees, or whatever happens, you’ve still got to be out there.” 

The livelihoods of many fishermen and lobstermen in Maine rely on Cummins engines and the technicians that service them. During the strike, lobstermen who showed up at the shop looking for parts during the strike refused to cross the picket line, choosing to go elsewhere for their parts or wait out the strike. They weren’t the only workers in Maine to show their solidarity. 

At one point, a UPS truck drove up and Don interrupted the interview saying he needed to tell the driver they were on strike. It turned out to be a replacement driver, filling in for the normal UPS driver who refuses to make deliveries at Cummins, instead driving by every day, pressing the “strike” button on his handheld delivery tracker to indicate that no delivery was made. Once the replacement driver understood the situation, she quickly apologized, hit the “strike” button on her device, and drove off with a smile and a wave.

Maine DSA members join Cummins Machinists on the picket line on March 25.

On the day that the workers were interviewed for this article, members of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were on the picket line, as part of the Maine AFL-CIO’s drive to get organizations to “sponsor a picket” by showing up on the line for a day. Among the DSA members showing their solidarity were union carpenters, who spoke openly and frankly with Cummins workers about their union worksites and swapped stories about the jobs they were working on. The DSA stood with the striking workers for several hours. As the cool March morning brightened into a warm Spring day, numerous displays of solidarity could be seen on the picket line. Cars drove past with men leaning out the window to exclaim their support. Trucks honked their horns. Earlier, a cyclist who biked past every day on his morning commute yelled, “fight the man!” on his way by. 

Workers from union and labor organizations walked the line with Cummins workers throughout the six weeks they were on the line. Inter-union solidarity is a proud tradition of the labor movement, based on the political principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Even though the picket line was far away from the main roads, it didn’t stop nurses with the Maine State Nurses Association as well as BIW workers with Local 6 IBEW from finding their way to the line to stand shoulder to shoulder with the workers. 

This sort of labor solidarity only strengthens the struggle. Nurses at Maine Med, who are in the middle of a fierce contract battle, have every interest to build links with their fellow workers at Cummins. Their employers are different, but the struggle for a decent quality of life and dignity on the job are the same.

Five weeks into the strike, Cummins offered workers their “last, best, offer,” continuing to push for “merit based pay” as opposed to a general wage increase. The “last, best, offer” technique is a classic company intimidation tactic used to spread fear and division amongst the workers. When the company offered this insulting contract proposal they literally laughed in the face of the workers’ representatives at the bargaining table and told them, “We don’t even need you.” 

It didn’t sit well. David, one of the younger guys out on the picket line, has worked in the parts department for seven years. He has a wife who works and four kids at home, but that didn’t stop him from getting down to the line. “The primary thing is the wages and whatnot, but…throwing stuff in our face and slapping us around a bit is not respectful in any way,” David said. 

Tom Campobasso, the shop steward of the Cummin’s shop in Scarborough says the idea that Cummins could replace workers so easily couldn’t be farther from the truth. “We have had a sign out front saying “now hiring” for a couple of years. We had a $5,000 sign-on bonus, we had two applicants, and one showed up for the first interview and never came back, the other never came back. So, I don’t know what crystal ball they are using.”

Doug made it plain and clear what he thought of the company’s disrespect, “I have forty years of experience on generators and diesel engines. To find someone like me who is willing to be in my shoes and do what I do, it’s pretty hard to come by. So you would think that they would be more interested in keeping us happy and employed. That doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m not sure if that’s corporate greed, or just their heads are swollen. They tell us that we are not needed, but obviously we are needed.” 

Cummins’ arrogance is not only putting workers and their families in the position of being out of work, but it’s also potentially putting our backup energy infrastructure in peril. The US government mandates that healthcare facilities have backup generation for essential emergency functions if they are to receive federal funding. These backup generators are becoming increasingly important as electrical grids across the country are deteriorating. A review of federal data of power outages across the U.S. by the Wall Street Journal revealed there were fewer than two dozen major disruptions in 2000. Twenty years later, that number has surpassed 180. In recent years, Maine has had particularly severe power outages, and in 2017 we had longer, more frequent power outages per customer than any other state. When Cummins workers go out to service the generators of hospitals, they aren’t just keeping the lights on, they are making sure that people stay alive. “If you’re on the operating table and the generation goes out: who do you call?” asked Doug.

Over the years, the company has asked its technicians to do more with less. Mark, a service technician who has been installing, servicing, and repairing generators across the state for forty-three years at Cummins has seen the demands on the company grow while at the same time there are fewer people to do the work. At times this can make for strenuous conditions. “All the road guys are on call twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. So if a hospital goes down at two in the morning we have to jump in our trucks and go. We are all essential workers, but Cummins doesn’t seem to appreciate that. They treat us like a piece of shit,” said Doug.

Tom Campobasso, the shop steward of the Cummin’s shop in Scarborough has worked at Cummins for forty years and recalls a time when it was different at the company. Twenty-five years ago Tom was involved in a strike at Cummins. “It was wages then. It got solved; you went back to work, and when you got back to the other side it was like you never left.” This time, when the company said it didn’t need the workers, Tom said it felt “degrading, disrespectful, you know. It makes you look at the company in a totally different way. They have this big thing about caring and integrity, blah, blah, blah, but they aren’t even standing behind their own values. If they were, they wouldn’t be putting us out here over a general wage increase.”

Workers on the line said they know what’s happening at Cummins is happening to workers across the board. “[Costs] are rising at a much higher rate than what the workers are getting paid. I think it’s time that people start regaining more of their lives, instead of the shareholders controlling everything. Granted, it takes money to make money, but the lower end of the ladder seems to be making the most of it and getting the least of it. You know, we have been out there through storms and Covid-19 and otherwise, while the rest of them have been sitting at home in pajama bottoms looking at their laptops,” said Doug. 

Striking workers like Doug and his union take a stand for all of us. Their struggle is the struggle of working people everywhere to have some control over our lives, our working conditions, and the right to be respected for the labor we contribute to society. You can support striking workers by never crossing a picket line or, better yet, walking the line with them. If you can afford it, donate to strike funds, or convince your union or political organization to give what it can. 

Jordan McLeod

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