July 16, 2001
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama–“We are fa-mi-ly!” chanted unionists on a feisty 4:30 a.m. picket line here outside the Meadowcraft plant July 2. Members of United Steelworkers of America Local 8285 voted to strike the plant June 30 after rejecting a concessionary contract that would cut $2 or more from some workers’ hourly wages. Meadowcraft, which employs about 500 workers, is a manufacturer of metal lawn chairs.
More than 120 strikers and their families showed up on the picket line on the first day of the strike. Some workers held signs reading “8285: no incentives.” Bernard Effinger, a heavy machine operator, explained, “They want to put welders on an incentive plan where they will have to work at 104 percent production every day of the working week to make $12.88 an hour. If you don’t make 104 percent, you will make $8.16 an hour.” Welders currently make between $10.25 and $12. Effinger commented that “104 percent is hard to make.”
“There isn’t a person on the picket line who wants to be out here,” said Charles King, who has worked at the plant for 31 years. “But if it wasn’t for the union they would try to cut us to minimum wage. That’s what they’d like to do. You can get sick in this plant and the same supervisor who drives you to the hospital will write you up for leaving early. That’s the kind of people they are. They care about as much for people out here as the dirt under their feet.”
José Gutiérrez, a welder for five years at the plant, said, “It’s not fair–I’ve been working here for five years, but some workers have given their lives to the company and are now older. You can’t expect them to make 104 percent. Some have arthritis. It’s also difficult because they give you bad parts to weld.”
One worker, 27, who asked that his name not be used, said, “We are out here because they are trying to introduce an incentive plan to decrease welders’ pay. We have a number of people who are older and may not be able to make rate.”
Speaking over the blare of a passing semi-truck honking in support, María García stated, “I think it is humiliating that they want to lower our wages to as little as $7.” García is a finishing welder, a job that earns about 50 cents an hour more than parts welders. “I’m making $10.75. Now they want to pay me $7? That’s crazy!”
Dora López, who has worked at the plant for 10 months, said, “I will not accept a drop in my wages.”
Close to half the workers at the plant are Mexican-born. A number of U.S.-born workers remarked that the role Mexican workers play in the strike is crucial to its victory. At the July 1 picket one striker who is a Black woman hopped out of a truck and asked, “Where are the Spanish signs?” When she found out there weren’t any, she approached one of her Mexican co-workers, and they got some fluorescent green poster board to make several signs. The next morning a striker who is Black decided to hold the Spanish-language sign, which read, “Compañeros mexicanos, we need your support for this strike because it is beneficial to everyone that [the company] respects the decision of the union because it would be humiliating for one who would accept to work for less money.”
Striker Rafael Sánchez declared, “No one from Mexico will enter that plant.” His words were echoed by his co-worker Antonio Pérez.
Meadowcraft had security guards at the gate with video cameras. A plain white company van crossed the line several times. People would yell “Scab!” each time. But when the van went into the plant and let out passengers, workers noted that they were supervisors and office staff. It did not appear to strikers that a serious attempt to work production was yet being organized.
“What it boils down to is they want to make us do a day-and-a-half’s work in one day,” explained Maurice Coleman. “If they make the welder work harder, every department will get sped up, too. Incentive pay is like gambling: if I make 100 percent, if I can do it for a week. We as welders are already underpaid. Most places start at $12 or $13 an hour. If we let them put welders on incentive, they will start to do it to every department.”
Jeanne FitzMaurice, a garment worker in Alabama, contributed to this article.