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History of Local 2-232

By Joe Chambers and Scott Godshaw

          Local 7-232 was first organized as Local 232 of the United Auto Workers in 1937. This organizing was done by a group of billing machine operators and supervisors. This was a conservative union that was fairly timid in the early years.

          There had been prior attempts to organize a union at Briggs & Stratton as early as 1918. Earlier in the 1930's there were unsuccessful attempts to organize a union at Briggs by the IWW, Machinists, and UAW. The Machinists had made some headway, but the company fired employees showing support for the union and there was some resistance since the Machinists were a skilled craft union organizing a largely unskilled shop.

          Briggs and Stratton recognized the Union after almost all of the 1,300 workers signed up with the union. The first agreement contained a 20% wage increase, (half of which replaced a former bonus), a grievance procedure and limited recognition of seniority rights. A one-week vacation came soon thereafter. At that time the UAW had a policy stating that there should be no signed contracts, only written policies. This was because the labor movement was enjoying considerable success in a very fluid labor relations environment at that time.

          The relationship with the company remained good from 1938 until 1944. There were however many shortcomings to this arrangement and few benefits by today's standards. There was no union shop agreement, weak seniority protections and different wages for men and women. The contract that ran from September 12, 1942 until July 1, 1944 had starting rates of 48˘ per hour for women and 55˘ per hour for men. In 1944 women made up 46% of the workforce at Briggs and Stratton.

          When that contract expired, the union made substantial demands including dues check-off and union security, a better grievance procedure, plant wide seniority for layoffs, equal pay for equal work and full pay for stewards for time spent handling grievances. Negotiations broke down and the matter was appealed to the War Labor Board. The War Board directed the company to grant the union shop agreement, dues check-off, full pay for time lost in grievance handling, and an additional week off for those with five years seniority. The company refused to do so, arguing the WLB had no legal jurisdiction. Additionally the company had a policy of not revealing the rates of pay for various jobs to the union. The union felt the company used this practice to reward "stooges" without the knowledge of the union by placing them on high paying jobs.

          Beginning in November of 1945 the union adopted a policy of sporadic work stoppages and walkouts. These walkouts were without warning and could last from a few hours to a few days. Members would leave the shop and go directly to a meeting at Jefferson Hall to hear about the progress or lack of progress in negotiations. By April of 1946, the company had offered a 13.5% wage increase but failed to address the other issues. This did not end the short strikes. In May of 1946, the company appealed to the WERB, which ruled that the strikes were in violation of the state's Employment Peace Act and ordered it to stop. The State Supreme Court upheld that ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court also upheld that ruling.

          Limited progress was made in some areas offset by growing conflict in other areas. Wages were increased and the company implemented a pension plan without consulting the union. The union negotiated an insurance plan that was described by the union as one of the best insurance plans in the country.

          However, the company still adamantly opposed the union security agreement and refused to make time study data and other rate data available to the union. The union filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB and no agreement was reached.

          On January 15, 1950, 1900 members of Local 232 left the plant for a strike that lasted 15 weeks. This was a difficult strike in which the company hired replacement workers and some workers did cross the picket line. By mid-February, the companies claimed over 900 people were working in the plant.

          On April 26th, the union abruptly ended the strike and returned to work. Stories vary on why that happened. One version says the union did it to prevent the company being taken over by outsiders. Some said this was putting more pressure on the company since they refused to remove the scabs, but did not lock out any of the strikers. Whatever the reason for the return, the result was successful for the union. In July 1950, members voted 4 to 1 in favor of the union shop in an election held by the NLRB. On August 1, 1950 the company signed a five-year agreement that granted all of the union's demands.

          The wounds from that strike remained for decades. Briggs refused to lock out the former strikers and they also refused to remove the scabs. This created a very hostile environment that resulted in many scabs eventually leaving. However many scabs remained in the workforce. The long life of the wound was demonstrated by the "scabs of the 50 strike" being pointed out to workers more than 35 years later as the last of them approached retirement.

          After the 1950 strike, labor relations were good at Briggs and Stratton. The company grew and prospered dramatically. The union was able to gain a share of this prosperity for the employees.

In 1974 there was a strike of 28 days. This strike came as a surprise to both the company and the union's leadership that felt they had done their best. The strike was, caused by workers demands for voluntary overtime, a better pension with early retirement after 30 years of service, and cost of living protections for wages. In the end the union won a contract that gave the workers all that they demanded.

          The bargaining posture of both sides became more guarded after that strike. More militant members challenged the union's leadership. The company found growth more difficult because their market had matured.

          In 1983, Briggs jumped on the "concession bandwagon" with much of corporate America. The company approached negotiations feeling that a strike was an acceptable cost for the concessions they were demanding and did not put forth an offer that anyone believed the union would accept.

This resulted in a strike that lasted 13 weeks. In the end the union returned to work with a divided leadership and an inferior contract that contained many of the concessions the company had demanded. Many gains were lost and concessions made that have never been recovered.

This strike led to a completion in the change in leadership in the Union, replacing a group that had been in power since the early 60's with a group that had been challenging for control of the local since the mid 70's.

The strike of 1983 also led to a change in attitude on the part of management toward the Milwaukee workforce and community. The management was deeply offended that the striking union members had remained solid longer than they had anticipated. This made the cost of the strike unacceptable even though the company had prevailed on most issues. Management then began to move operations out of Milwaukee, vowing to never be held hostage to a union again.

In 1983, Briggs and Stratton had its small engine production entirely located in the Milwaukee area. Employment in the plants had peaked in 1981 at over 11,000. Briggs also made almost all components for its engines, purchasing raw materials and making the components in-house. Now Briggs & Stratton has five plants in southern states, and joint ventures in Japan, China, India and Missouri. Briggs & Stratton also now purchases many components that used to be produced in the Milwaukee plants.

Briggs has also eliminated what it considered to be non-core business. In 1995 they spun off the lock division to become what is now Strattec Security Corp. They have sold two foundries in West Allis, one represented by Local 7-232 and one represented by the Molders Union.

Through the 1990's the relationship has remained adversarial and complicated. Thousands of jobs were lost to new plants in the South. Difficult negotiations and job actions resulted in a prolonged lawsuit against the Local Union and International Union. This lawsuit and its effects dominated the relationship for most of the decade. This lawsuit led to the current contract being negotiated and approved during a trusteeship during which the International Union ran the affairs of the local union and negotiated a contract similar to one that had been rejected by the membership.

Many Names of our Local Union.

The UAW had received its original charter from the AFL in 1935 to organize the auto industry on a industrial basis. The charter was the first issued to an American union to organize on an industrial basis rather than by craft. At the first convention, in August of 1935, William Green, then president of the AFL, appointed Francis Dillon, an AFL representative, president and Homer Martin as vice-president of the UAW. This was done over the objections of 250 delegates from auto industry workers who sought the open election of officers.

          Homer Martin sought support for the open election of officers from the already organized plants. The AFL finally agreed and Martin was elected president at the convention in April 1936. Martin was an outstanding organizer. When he became president the union had approximately 24,000 members. By October of 1937 the membership had grown to 400,000.

          In 1936 John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers formed the Committee for Industrial Workers. Most of the industrial unions within the AFL immediately joined the CIO. In September of that year, the AFL suspended all of the unions associated with the CIO. The efforts to resolve the differences between the AFL and CIO failed, and the CIO formally broke with the AFL.

          A split was also growing at that time within the UAW. One side led by Homer Martin leading a direction that centralized power in the president of the International, opposed unauthorized strikes and worked to purge communist from the union. The other side that included most of the Detroit area local unions, promoted militant leadership and tactics, promoted greater democracy in the union by having equal votes for all board members and inclusion of all workers.

          Local 232 and at least 11 other small and medium sized locals including workers at Harley Davidson and Globe Union sided with Homer Martin in the side of the union that became the UAW AFL. The other portion of the UAW was much more successful in getting support in the larger plants including the major auto producing plants. That faction went on to become the UAW CIO.

The two sides were unable to resolve their differences and in 1939 the split became final. From 1937 to 1956, our union was Local 232 of the UAW-AFL.

          In December of 1955 when the AFL and CIO merged, the UAW CIO kept the UAW name. The UAW-AFL became the Allied Industrial Workers in 1956. Our Union then became Local 232 of the AIW.

          In 1993, the Allied Industrial Workers International Union merged to become part of the United Paperworkers International Union. Local unions from the former AIW had 7000 added to the local number, so our union became Local 7232 of the UPIU.

          In January of 1999, the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) merged with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union. The new union is now named the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union. (PACE)

Former AIW locals no longer kept their 7 designation, however local unions had a digit added to the front of the local number to represent the region they will be in after PACE finishes consolidating regions. We are in what will become Region 7 when the consolidation is complete. So, we are now PACE Local 7-232.

The 21st Century

At Strattec, we are in our third contract since the spin-off, including the one negotiated at the time of spin off. We are facing negotiation for the next contract in early 2001.

At Briggs, the membership is now about 2,000. Management claims to be committed to remaining in Milwaukee and some work has returned from the Southern plants, but we continue to lose jobs due to the engines being made in Milwaukee being replaced by OHV engines made in the South.

It remains uncertain whether we can get enough jobs in Milwaukee to replace the ones we will lose. There is little optimism that we will ever get the jobs we have already lost back and great trepidation and uncertainty about the future of what remains of Briggs & Stratton in Milwaukee.

        In 2001, at both Strattec and Briggs & Stratton, the Local was involved in negotiations. The Strattec contract was set to expire on June 1, 2001 while at Briggs, the negotiations were for a contract that would succeed the current collective bargaining agreement that would have expired on August 1, 2002 . At Strattec, the members had overwhelmingly rejected the company’s “best offer” 385 to 4 on May 20, 2001 . At that point, a motion was made and passed to take a strike authorization vote. This vote gave the Bargaining Committee the right to authorize a strike if needed. This vote was 382 to 6. The company’s proposal included unacceptable language changes and a totally inferior economic package. On June 6, 2001 , another ratification vote was taken. The Bargaining Committee, after some movement from the company recommended the contract. Explanation was given that if the proposal was turned down, the members would be on strike that evening as of 12:01a.m. In a close vote, the proposal was rejected by a count of 235 to 202. The strike was on. Members stood firm and on June 20, a Federal Mediator set up a meeting that the company agreed to attend. This meeting led to another ratification vote and a final proposal was approved on June 22, 2001 , thus ending the 16 day strike. The vote was 270 to 116.

At Briggs, on July 8, 2001 , a successor contract was ratified by a vote of 732 to 241. The most significant change in this contract was the elimination of piecework to take place in August of 2004. This did, however, carry a $43 million price tag for the company, as members with 1979 seniority or greater will receive a $21,000 pension bonus payment upon retirement.

It is now 2005 and we are in negotiations with Strattec, whose contract expires June 26, 2005. We have approximately 290 active employees at Strattec.

At Briggs, there were not any letters sent for an early opener contract extension. The current contract, however,  does not expire until August 1, 2006. We now have less than 1000 active members at Briggs.

 Information for this history taken from History of Allied Industrial Workers Local 232, by Joe Broderick, from the history of the Allied Industrial Workers in various formats, and the experience of the author, Joe Chambers, who has been an officer of the Local since 1981.