FREEPORT, Il. - Three supporters of outsourced workers were arrested this morning for blocking equipment removal at the Bain-owned Sensata Technologies plant here. With election day just around the corner, the Bain-owned company is pushing ahead with its outsourcing plans as it shuts down operations in the U.S. to ship more than 170 jobs overseas.
Community members blocked the loading dock today for a second time to prevent equipment from the plant from being moved. Three community members - including Karri Penniston, the daughter of a Sensata worker, were arrested when they refused to move after the company called the police.
Penniston, a student off from school today for Columbus Day, has a mother, Joanne, who is losing her job in the outsourcing. Penniston, along with two other town residents supporting the workers, Debbi Kemple and Jerry Ontjes, refused to move when police gave them an order and were subsequently arrested.
The arrests took place on Day 25 for "Bainport," a protest tent-city that has sprung up across the road from the Sensata plant. The arrests, like the tent city itself, have become the focus of attention in this long-time Republican stronghold that has now become the epicenter of a struggle against economic policies associated with Mitt Romeny, the GOP presidential candidate.
The global flow of capital and jobs from once-industrialized areas in this country to cheap labor places around the world is much more than a discussion point here: It is a reality that has shaken this "all-American town" to its very foundations and a reality that has pushed its people to do things they never dreamed they would ever do.
Thirty-five-year-old Joanne Penniston, the mother of the young woman arrested this morning, does hand-soldering at the plant. She said, as she stirred a 16-quart electric pot full of broccoli soup in the main tent on Oct. 7, "You figure you have good skills, you have a good job, you work hard, you do your best so everything should be OK, right? Then they take you and toss you aside. That's why I'm out here and that's why a lot of people in town are rethinking where they stand on a lot of things," she said.
The Sensata plant, which makes brake and transmission line sensory equipment for automobiles, used to be owned by Honeywell. "They sold us off like we were slaves to be bought and sold," said Penniston, "and then Sensata used us by making us train our replacements and when they were done with us they gave us our pink slips." She gave the soup a final stir, covered it, turned the oven dial to "warm," and headed off to her shift at the plant. She has three weeks left before she is jobless.
The tents now seem like permanent structures across the road from the plant. Not only the workers, but town residents, take turns sleeping in them, so the protest city, which sprung up 25 days ago, is alive 24 hours per day.
The workers can cook, turn on lights, use computers and even make phone calls from the main tent and from some of the others because of the help from county workers at the Stephenson County Fairgrounds who have hooked them up with electrical connections and other "conveniences." In addition to electric cables running past hog pens nearby," the county is letting the protesting workers use fairground toilet and shower facilities adjacent to "Bainport." The City Council has passed a resolution in support of the encampment and the police are not enforcing laws that forbid camping out on the fairgrounds or alongside public roads.
"I am amazed at the political sophistication, the bravery, and the courage of these workers," said George Gaulrapp, the town's mayor. "From the outset, they saw that Bain's ownership of the plant gave them leverage to put pressure on Romney and they have worked to gain the support of everyone in the community."
At Login's Bar and Grill, one of the waitresses said, "Everyone here supports them. If the jobs go, the whole town suffers," she said, as she placed four freshly-baked pizzas down on the counter. They had been ordered by a group from the Unemployed Action Center in Chicago that visited "Bainport" last Thursday to show support. "Someone from Massachusetts called here last week and ordered pizzas," the waitress said. "We are constantly sending food up there that people from all over are ordering."
Last week when they heard trucks were arriving for the first time to dismantle machinery that had been part of the employees' lives for years, the residents of Bainport marched across the road and onto the plant's grounds where they, with supporters from the town, blocked the gates. That first standoff lasted all afternoon but, unlike the standoff today, resulted in no arrests. After police arrived last week, the workers returned peacefully to their encampment.
Cheryl Rendecker, another Sensata worker about to be laid off, explained how, while the workers and Freeport suffer from the oputsourcing, Romney does well.
According to his recently released 2011 tax returns, Romney transferred $701,703 worth of Sensata stock to his charity. First, he got to deduct the full value of the stock, at a 35 percent tax rate, which amounted to almost a $250,000 benefit.
Second, Romney was able to avoid paying capital gains taxes on the stock price increase. His returns list no cost for the stock, and indicate he obtained them as part of a partnership interest in Bain. Avoiding capital gains taxes on the full increase would save an additional $100,000. In 2011 Romney gifted $170,000 worth of Sensata stock to his charity, saving $25,000 on capital gains taxes.
"I could pay off my house with that $25,000," said Rendecker.
Tom Gaulrapp (no relation to the mayor) has slept at the encampment every night since it has been open. He beams with pride when he talks about all the people now behind the workers. "But we still havn't convinced the person who can stop this, we still havn't convinced Romney," he said. "It may be too late for us here at this plant," said Gaulrapp, "but it's not too late for what you see here to grow into a movement that catches fire all over this country."
Photo: Moments after refusing to get up, community supporter Debbi Kemple was arrested. Photo courtest of Bainport.com