07 September 2015

She Was The "Alternative" To Scott Walker?

Today is Labor Day.

If I were President (as if I would want to be!), it's one of the holidays I'd keep on the calendar.  I'd get rid of all of the religious holidays because the US is a secular country (at least, it's supposed to be).  I'd pass a law that workers were entitled to two or three "floating holidays" for whatever purpose they see fit.  And the only official Federal holidays would be Martin Luther King Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day (which I would call Remembrance Day), Independence Day, Labor Day and Veterans' Day.  (As I become more anti-war, I become more pro-veteran.)  And, perhaps, the birthdays of a few of my heroes and heroines.

OK, enough of fantasy-land.  I've just had lunch with a good friend, who happens to be the widow of a longtime union worker.  And I'm going to see another friend who is a member of a union--of adjunct faculty members in her university.

On Labor Day last year, I wrote about the strike of Schwinn metal polishers and platers that began the week after Labor Day in 1919.  As Schwinn had bought out a number of smaller bicycle manufacturers, some of which continued to sell bikes under their own names, the strike led to a widespread boycott of a number of bicycle and motorcycle makers in the US.  (In those days, the industries were much more closely related than they are now.)  I also mentioned the Schwinn strike in 1980, which is often blamed for the closure of the old South Side plant in Chicago, when in truth the facility was outdated.

Now, of course, Schwinn is not the only bicycle company (or firm in any industry) with a dark side to its labor history.  All US bicycle manufacturers, with the exception of Worksman Cycle, have outsourced most or all of their production to low-wage countries with few or no labor organizations.  Of the 1.5 million bicycles sold annually under the Trek brand, only about 10,000--or 0.06 percent of its production--come from US facilities.  And none are ever touched by union hands before they reach your local dealer.

This became an issue in last year's Wisconsin gubernatorial election.  Few contemporary American political figures so openly express their hostility toward unions as the Badger State's governor, Scott Walker, does.  One thing you have to say for the guy:  He puts his money where his mouth is.  Oh, wait, he doesn't put his money anywhere.  Let's just say--if in a dry, academic way--that his actions are consistent with his rhetoric.

This guy is running for President.  Perhaps he wouldn't be if he'd lost his gubernatorial re-election bid last year to Mary Burke.  Days before the election, it seemed entirely possible.  But now he's in the race to become the Republican candidate in next year's Presidential election. 

I am one of the last people in this world who would praise, let alone endorse or elect, him.  However, to be fair, he was not responsible for Trek's labor and business practices. Ironically, his Democratic challenger in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race was, at least partially.

Mary Burke during her 2014 gubernatorial campaign in Wisconsin

Mary Burke, as you may know, was the CEO of Trek.  Her father founded the company in the mid-1970s.  For the first few years of the company's existence, all of the frames were made in their Waterloo, Wisconsin facility.  In the early 1980s, Trek began to import frames from Japan--as Schwinn and other American bike companies did--and assemble them as bikes sold under their own name.  Those Japanese bikes were mid-level models sold by Schwinn and other companies; for Trek, they were the lowest-priced models.  Still, they were good bikes and Japanese workers, at least, were being paid fair wages and had rights to organize.

However, as the decade went on, Trek--like other American companies--began to have bikes made for them in Taiwan.  At one point, Taiwanese bikes would account for more than 80 percent of those sold in the US market.  Now that number is about 5 percent, with 94 percent coming from the country that, in the 1990s, would begin to supply Trek and other companies. I am talking, of course, about China:  a country where workers would actually have more rights than they have now if someone like Scott Walker were in charge!

(When Trek bought the Gary Fisher, Klein, LeMond and Bontrager brands during the late 1990s, Trek immediately--you guessed it--shifted the remaining US production of those companies' products to Taiwan and China.)

Now, I am not laying the blame for the bicycle industry trends I've described solely at the feet of Ms. Burke.  It must be noted, though, that as a high-ranking executive in Trek (Her family referred to her as "the brains" of the company!), she had at least some responsibility for her company's decision to move production to Taiwan and, later, China.  As Trek accounts for over a third of bicycles sold in US bicycle shops, its practices are watched and emulated in the industry. 

Also, it has been noted that Ms. Burke helped to prevent Trek's Wisconsin workers from forming a union or joining forces with another (as Schwinn's Chicago workers did with the United Auto Workers). 

To think that this Mary Burke positioned herself as an "alternative" to Scott Walker!  It's enough to bring up whatever you're eating at your Labor Day barbecue!



  1. Unfortunately, far too many people in the US have already lost (long ago) many of the hard-won benefits gained by unions, including weekends, holidays, insurance, pensions, and more -- yet sadly many of the same people still claim (proudly) that we don't need unions anymore. "Maybe there was a time when they were needed, but they've outlasted their usefulness." Many will make these arguments against unions without the slightest hint of irony, even as they are working on a national holiday, or while their own children are missing the family's Thanksgiving dinner because they are having to work the Black-Friday-On-Thursday sale at Walmart.

  2. Brooks--I believe it was Ambrose Bierce who defined war as "how Americans learn geography." I'd agree, and wonder how Americans learn history. They can make the kinds of comments you mention, in the contexts you describe, only with a thorough ignorance of recent history. (After all, labor's biggest gains came in the years right after World War II.)