Workers confront Visteon violence

BEDFORD, Ind. – To workers on the mass picket line at the Visteon auto parts plant here, it seems like the company, a Ford spin-off, has planned long and hard to systematically slash their wages and wipe out their jobs.

“Their goal is to get all of us out of that plant and get people starting at $7 an hour, topping at $10, and never, never go higher and no medical,” said Lori Staley, an assembler of fuel system components.

Part of the plan emerged the first night of the walkout, May 30, when Visteon’s managers sicced armed guards from Huffmaster Crisis Service, a Michigan union-busting firm, on the peaceful pickets. Earl Wilson, president of IUE/CWA Local 84907, calls them thugs. “They came with 9 mm pistols, tazers and blackjacks,” he told the World.

Lora Gilbert, who was hired “right out of high school” to build fuel pumps 10 years ago, said she had tire marks on her arm but escaped serious injury by jumping on the hood of a Huffmaster van when its driver gunned it through the picket line, sending 12 workers to the hospital. “They beat us with our picket signs,” Gilbert continued, “and pulled one girl’s hair. One threw hot coffee in my face.”

Larry Gulliatt, an inspector of components and gauges, held on protectively to the local’s out-sized American flag as he picked up the story: “The thugs wrenched the flag from one of the women and dislocated her shoulder. They threw the flag on the ground and stomped on it.” The guards slung their leather belts, and “nearly took one fellow’s ear off” with the buckle, according to Gulliatt. The day after the melee, state police escorted a caravan of six busloads of strikebreakers through the union’s line.

Last month, in the midst of contract negotiations, management announced the elimination of 600 of the plant’s 1,050 jobs. Plant shutdowns and layoffs have been rampant in the last decade in this rural South Central Indiana region. RCA and Kimball Electronics have left the area in recent years.

“We’ve seen so many other people take cuts with the promise of their plants staying,” said David Hackney, who was laid off from two other manufacturing jobs before coming to Visteon. “All you do with concessions is finance the company’s move,” he said.

The impending layoffs cast a pall over contract negotiations. “Everything in that contract was take, take, cut, cut,” said Lori Staley, 30, speaking of the company proposal that led to the strike. Workers would have seen their wages slashed 30 percent, and a permanent second tier introduced.

But for these workers – most who can name more relatives, from spouses to second cousins, in the plant than you can count on the fingers of both hands – the final straw was the company’s attack on the retiree medical plan.

“We were trying to protect our grandparents,” said Annie Sowders. “We said we’d give up our wages if they’d leave the retirees alone.” But Visteon negotiators insisted that the union workers agree to retiree “cost sharing” of medical premiums with no cap on what the pensioners could be required to pay.

Solidarity for the workers in this small town is strong. Nearly every passing vehicle honks and waves at the strikers, who keep up a 50-strong presence round the clock since a local judge refused the company’s request for an injunction limiting pickets. They beep lightly, hoping to avoid $80 tickets that have been issued by Bedford police for “laying on the horn.”

Union steelworkers, electrical workers and miners have joined the picket line, and hundreds of UAW workers at a GM plant took a collection and filled the main street in front of the plant in a solidarity march June 3.

One part of the company’s diabolical plan does not appear to be bearing fruit. Visteon made sure that the security personnel and strikebreakers brought in to this rural, predominantly white community are African American, no doubt to divert the workers’ attention from the real perpetrators of the job- and wage-cutting. “This is typical tactics,” said Bill Blackwell, chief shop steward on the night shift.

But the workers weren’t buying it. “Visteon wants to start a racial war,” said Lora Gilbert, saying the company deliberately brought in African Americans to break the strike. But, she pointed out, one of those beaten by the thugs was a Black union member. While most of the Hoffmaster guards are Black, “the one who tells them what to do is white. The night they hit me with the van, it was him I heard tell the driver ‘gun it.’”

Local 907 President Earl Wilson told the World, “We have members who are Black, Hispanic, and Indian, and we’re all together in this.”

The workers on the line express determination to stay in the battle “for the duration.” And Annie Sowders says matter-of-factly, “I’ve traded my Ford for a Dodge.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.