Union presidents weigh in on GM legacy
JANESVILLE While the famous sit-down strike of 1937 may have launched the United Auto Workers in Janesville, the seven decades of hard work since are responsible for the well being of union members, General Motors and the community as a whole.
That’s the takeaway from a recent gathering of past presidents of the modern-day UAW Local 95 and its predecessors.
“There’s no doubt that the union has created a stable economy for the city of Janesville, and it created a stable lifestyle for the employees,” said John C. Dohner Sr., who was Local 95’s president from 1984 to 1987.
“And through the years, it definitely helped management manage better perhaps than what they wanted to.”
Local 95 was formed in 1968 with the merger of two unions: Local 95, which represented the workers at Fisher Body, and Local 121, which represented the workers at Chevrolet. Fisher Body workers supplied the bodies that Chevy workers put on chassis.
Earlier that year, GM announced plans to combine the Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants into one: General Motors Assembly Division.
Eldred Mielke was president of Local 95 when it represented just the Fisher Body workers. After the merger in 1968, he served as the first president of the combined Local 95. Dohner was a committeeman on the Fisher side of the plant.
“Different classifications existed for the same work in both sides of the house, and that’s where we ran into problems,” Dohner said. “We had to negotiate that the pay should be the same.
“I don’t know how big a stack of grievances I had to write for a nickel an hour, 40 cents a day because the pay wasn’t the same.”
Mielke remembers the friction between the two units and with management.
“The lines of demarcation were different, and we lost about 500 jobs because of that merger,” he said. “But we were able to break the wall. The wall between the plants finally came down, and then it was harmonious and a great place to work.”
Harmonious isn’t the word LaVerne Frisque uses in describing the sit-down strike of 1937, which occurred in Janesville and other cities and resulted in the automaker’s ultimate recognition of the UAW.
His father was one of the sit-down strikers.
“I remember them meeting in our basement,” said Frisque, who was president of the Fisher Body Local 95 from 1952 to 1953. “We had to put newspapers on the basement windows because if they got caught, they were fired right then and there.”
While Local 95 has had several turning points, Frisque and Mielke said, the sit-down strike was the most significant because it laid the groundwork for everything else.
GM benefited from the union’s formation, as did the workers, Mielke said.
“We were able to negotiate good pay for a 40-hour work,” he said. “Management knew they had things kind of under control because the union took care of the rank and file and you didn’t have 3,500 people fighting over stuff all the time.”
Local 95 faced another turning point in the 1980s. The local plant had lost its truck line, and word was that it would soon lose it J-car line.
“For 90 days, 120 days, whatever it was, we negotiated a local agreement that would be more competitive for General Motors,” said Dohner, who was president from 1984 to 1987. “I have a problem with anybody that says the UAW hasn’t met the task before as trying to help the company out because we have. That’s why we went to the four-day work week.”
Dohner and GM shop chairman Jim Lee helped hammer out the contract that ultimately set Janesville’s table for medium-duty trucks and the arrival of full-size sport utility vehicle production.
Plant manager Mike Cubbin joined them at the table.
“Jim and I were fortunate in that we had a plant manager that was a driving force,” Dohner said. “He was looking out for himself and his own way up, but we went to Detroit as a team and pitched this plant to the GM executives.
“That was the first time, they told us, that they’d ever heard anyone talk about the quality of the employees. We told them that we realize that shipping here is a little bit further and everything, but we asked them to take a look at the quality of our employees.”
In Detroit, Dohner said he heard unfortunate tales about workforces at other plants.
“Janesville always has been known as a plant that had workers that were well respected,” he said. “We had the FBI system—friends, brothers and in-laws—because if somebody goofed off down on the line, the parent or the relative was down there saying, ‘Hey, straighten your act out. I helped get you in here.’”
As Local 95 president between 1993 and 1996 and again in 1998 and 1999, Mike Marcks and the union benefited from the good times that the profitable big trucks brought to Janesville’s assembly line.
“Those were good times that were based on the leadership that came before me,” Marcks said. “When we were out promoting to get new products, it was because of the four 10-hour days we had agreed to and the work ethic of all the people in this local.
“Janesville wasn’t a hard sell.”
Marcks’ biggest problem was successfully integrating different groups of workers who were hired at different times and sometimes from other plants.
Integration was also on the mind of Jon Jarstad, Local 95’s president from 1999 to 2002.
“I was recording secretary for six years before I was president, and a lot of those years were spent trying to get more members,” Jarstad said. “We were doing a lot in terms of getting more units involved with the local.”
That’s evident today in that Local 95 reaches well beyond the GM plant. It represents workers in a variety of area industries ranging from credit unions to health care.
Involvement has long been a hallmark of Local 95 members, the past presidents said.
“We have produced councilmen, board members, committee volunteers … you could go on endlessly with the number of people from our local union that have served the community in one form or another,” Mielke said.
Mike Sheridan, who completed a six-year run as Local 95 president in May, agreed.
“We never tooted our own horn because that was not something we did,” said Sheridan, an autoworker who was recently elected speaker of the state Assembly. “I don’t know that the community really knows all the union did in terms of giving back to the community.”
Sheridan said his leadership era centered on building a strong relationship between the union and plant management to ensure a long-term future.
To that end, he said, Local 95 members continued their long history of working with management to make GM better.
“GM, with a little convincing by the UAW, realized that our members had a lot to offer in terms of quality, productivity and safety,” he said. “We owe those people, and I’m not ready to give up.”
If the community loses the GM plant and Local 95, however, the impact will be huge.
“You name an issue, and 95’s members have been involved,” Mielke said.
Now, the issue of the day is the end of SUV production in Janesville, and Local 95’s past presidents will reflect on the last Tahoe off the line with sadness.
Dohner will be thinking of “the good people that are watching their futures perhaps disappear because they’re lifestyle is gonna change.”
Frisque worries about the future for the auto industry workers, as well as those whose lifestyles will change with the economic downturn.
Jarstad worries about his son, who was laid off at GM in February. The son is going to school, and the family hopes that tuition support will continue until he graduates.
Marcks worries about the children of the community who might not be able to go to college because their parents have lost their jobs.
“The last day is going to be a sad day, and I think I’m gonna be a little choked up when I watch it,” he said.
“I’ll probably be swallowing a little hard.”
Public jealousy, animosity were evident: Past leaders
The past presidents of United Auto Workers Local 95 are well aware of the animosity that the community has a long history of generating toward workers at the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
“It’s always been a love-hate relationship,” said John C. Dohner Sr., Local 95’s president from 1984 to 1987. “They love our money, but they hate us because we have it. That’s the bottom line.”
That’s unfortunate, Dohner and other past presidents said, because GM’s high-paying wages funded stable lifestyles and an extensive list of activities that helped Janesville grow.
“The people in Janesville always seem to be very receptive to this local when we’re out there helping with United Way and with all the things like that, but the minute we come up to negotiations, then people get jealous,” said Jon Jarstad, Local 95 president from 1999 to 2002.
What bothers Jarstad the most, he said, is how some members of the community seemed to be overjoyed with the struggles of GM and its workers.
“They forget that these things are all negotiated benefits,” he said. “Our pension? We paid for it by putting money away. Now some people would like to see that taken away, and some people would like to see our health insurance taken away because they don’t have it.”
For Dohner, it boils down to jealousy.
“There are people that don’t understand anything about the plant or working in that environment,” he said.
The animosity also may stem from politics.
“We believe more in Democrats, and that causes problems with the staunch Republicans,” said Mike Marcks, president from 1993 to 1996 and again in 1998 and 1999.
“I’m sure that’s a big part of our differences.”
Current leader has had trial by fire
Andy Richardson has been on the job for only four months, but what a four months they have been.
Richardson became president of United Auto Workers Local 95 in September. He replaced Brad Dutcher, who was elected to the post in May to replace the retiring Mike Sheridan. After just a couple of months in Local 95’s top spot, Dutcher was named to a post with the international union.
Union members elected Richardson as first vice president in May, just days after General Motors announced that it would eliminate one of two production shifts at its assembly plant in Janesville.
A few weeks later, GM went one step further and said it would end production in Janesville by the end of 2010 at the latest. In October, GM moved up its timeline and said Dec. 23 would be the last day of production in Janesville.
“I haven’t had a good six months,” Richardson said at a recent gathering of former UAW Local 95 presidents.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that I’m the one at the helm when the ship is about half full, and I still can’t find the plug. The sleepless nights get to me.
“I’m basically ripping down what these guys built.”
It’s easy to understand why Richardson feels like he does. But those feelings aren’t justified, as Local 95’s past presidents were quick to point out.
“I don’t think that’s the attitude at all,” said Mike Marcks, Local 95’s president from 1993-96 and in 1998 and 1999.
“All the building blocks were there, but the economy, the condition of this facility … ” Marcks said. “It isn’t his fault or that of the leadership here, it’s the trying times that we’re in.”
Until the country’s health care crisis is fixed and work stops going overseas, Marcks said, the nation’s manufacturing base will keep eroding.
John C. Dohner Sr., Local 95’s president from 1984 to 1987, agreed.
“If this country ever gets into another war such as a magnitude of one of the World Wars, where are we going to go to produce the goods they need?” he said. “I ask that all the time, and I mean no disrespect for anyone that’s ever served in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
While Richardson may agree, the frontlines for him are now on Lafayette Street in Janesville.
“The biggest battle we have … is how do we preserve the hall,” he said, adding that Local 95 is putting money into a trust fund to pay the hall’s expenses.
“That could get hairy for us because that
takes money away from the bargaining, the union side of the union, but we feel that it’s more important that we keep the doors open.”
UAW Local 95 Presidents*
Andy Richardson: Sept. 2008-present
Brad Dutcher: May 2008-Sept. 2008
Mike Sheridan: 2002-2008
Jon Jarstad: 1999-2002
Jim Benash: April 1999-June 1999
Mike Marcks: Sept. 1998-April 1999
Bruce Penny: 1996-Sept. 1998
Mike Marcks: 1993-1996
Mike O’Brien: 1987-1993
John C. Dohner Sr.: 1984-1987
Herb Sainsbury: 1981-1984
Mike O’Brien: 1978-1981
Herb Sainsbury: 1974-1978
Bob McNatt: 1971-1974
Don Bernstein: 1969-1971
Eldred Mielke: 1968
*Local 95 was formed in 1968 with the merger of Local 95 (Fisher Body) and Local 121 (Chevrolet)
Local 95: Eldred Mielke, LaVerne Frisque, Gaylord Sagan, Cleo Keele, Wesley Van Horn, Strauss Ellis and Waldo Luchsinger.
Local 121: Darwin Wagie, Paul Shank, Homer McKnight, Elmer Yenny.
—Source: UAW Local 95