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Fiery Struggle in Normal

UAW 2488

Despite setbacks and layoffs at Eureka and General Electric, industrial employment remained steady in the area, thanks to Diamond-Star Motors' 1986 location in Bloomington-Normal. Workers quickly organized with the United Auto Workers, forming Local 2488. The company, jointly owned by Chrysler and Mitsubishi at the time, did not contest the union organization.

In 1985, as part of its decision to locate in Bloomington-Normal, Diamond-Star Motors watched as local construction unions signed a construction agreement with general contractor Kajima International. In exchange for some concessions, particularly shifting from an 8-hour day to a 10-hour, four day week, the contractor agreed to only employ union signatory contractors. The unions also agreed to a no-strike, no lock-out clause within the agreement. The $680 million project created almost 1,000 construction jobs.

Don Shelby was one of the first workers hired at the new auto plant. He was sent by the company to Japan to learn their techniques and machine maintenance requirements. He said the biggest obstacle to union organizing was workers aspiring to supervisor status who were afraid of turning the company against them.

The company didn't fight the organizing. There was always some who thought that, No, I want to be a boss and you're messing everything up.' It didn't take them long before they realized, I didn't get this job and this isn't exactly what they're telling us it's supposed to be.' It's not as rosy a picture. They finally realized we got nothing and got organized (Shelby).

Julie Clemons, who left Nestle-Beich right after the 1988 strike to work for the automaker, soon realized why workers were talking about union representation:

It was devastating, absolutely devastating, to walk from this little building that you knew everybody to this huge car plant. They put me in the paint shop and I swear to you, I thought they went to Sears and bought paint. I had absolutely no idea, you walked in and it looked like Disney World, with all these shuttles and everything going all over the place. It was just very overpowering.
There was no union, no word about it, but that was okay with me. I didn't have a problem with it. They gave me a handbook ...and they told me all these promises. Open door policy, nobody has any walls,...you could look into the head Diamond-Star person's eyes at any time you want, we all eat together, we all park together, we all wear the same uniform, it's going to be a big, happy family. Cool. This is Shangri-La in a nut.
...Then it changed soon after you were on the floor. There was no family, I'd have no say anymore, because everybody's out there by themselves.
(Co-worker Sy Knuffman) ...got me, bringing me union propaganda, how the unions are going to help me. But I'm getting closer to Caterpillar because I'm now at an automotive plant, Caterpillar's always on strike. ...And I don't want to be on strike, I don't want to sit at home with a hundred dollars a week. I can do this without a union and make ten bucks an hour. They're giving us raises all the time, they company's not that bad.
...Sy kept on me about You need to go, you need to go listen to them (the union representatives).' I would ask questions over and over again, just to make sure that I was understanding the answer and making sure that he wasn't side-stepping my question. ...That's why I started coming to more meetings, and I started asking a bunch of questions, talking about it to my friend Sy and other people. It just seemed like the right move for us, so then I began actively campaigning to fight for the union, to vote yes to have a union in the plant (Clemons).

Clemons eventually became UAW Local 2488's first elected financial officer and helped bargain the first contract with the company, which was signed on August 28, 1989. The new union's first controversy was decided a shift system. Diamond-Star had rotated production workers between shifts but ceded the right to decide a system to the union. After prolonged negotiation a shift system was established, but it caused hard feelings, especially amongst members who were permanently put on a secondary shift. The union argued that shift placement should be seniority-based, traditional in many union contracts (McKinney).

In 1992 workers negotiated a second contract, which boosted production workers from $14.71 an hour to $17 over three years. In 1995 Diamond-Star officially became Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing and a third contract was approved, but only by a slim margin, as workers were upset over forced overtime. The union and company's fourth contract was approved in August 1998, but only hours before the previous contract expired, with workers having taken a strike vote and ready to walk if there was not a settlement.

A workplace issue that brought national attention to the plant was allegations of sexual harassment, beginning in December 1994. A group of 26 women workers filed suit against the company, which triggered a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study. Eventually the company paid fines and settled with both the women who sued as a group and the federal government. The harassment charges cast a pall over the company and the local union; at the union's request, the firm held intensive sexual harassment training sessions with all employees and the firm instituted a zero-tolerance policy.

Company executive Larry Green felt the company "learned a lot" from its experience with the lawsuits, saying that "No one likes to have that kind of broad brush taint that we had and that the community had. ...It brought a lot of the team even closer in the sense that we got the support of our people and we did wheat had to do (Green)."

Don Shelby, as a union officer, related the hostile reaction he got from a male member after a woman member complained:

We had an instance on the floor, where the woman called up and complained to me. She didn't know what to do, this one guy was bothering her, calling her. This was early, it was 91, February. Well, what do you want to do?' She said, I just want it to stop.' ...I said, I'll take care of it.' I think she was going to leave the company. I said, I'm glad you called me first, at least give me a shot to try.' ...We got one (male) in the QC area, and he just reamed my ass, I'll call the company, you pulled me off the line.' All I'm trying to tell you is that you better watch it.' He was mad because I was accusing him of doing something. No fellow, I ain't accusing you of doing nothing. All I'm telling you is knock it off because if by chance you're saying something to any of these women, you'd better stop.' I said, You're at the point now where if it continues, they'll fire you.' And the guy got upset. No, don't get mad, I'm trying to save your job. If you don't want to listen to me, that's up to you. I'm telling you, it's got to stop if anything is going on.'

...I waited later, I called her up at home and I talked to her. I hope it did something, if not, you'll have to go to the company. ...Call me back in a couple of days, see how it goes, let me know.' ...She called back, said he did lay off some of the talk. He's still loud and he just don't like women working here, I guess. If he keeps up any problems,' I said, get the rep and he'll get him out of the company.' ...That was the only instance I had with a woman having problem (Shelby).

Julie Clemons saw harassment on a regular basis and felt it often went too far:

I saw it every day. I guess I never felt that I was being harassed to the point that I would have to go to the lengths that these women went to. But if these 29 original women were harassed as bad as they say they were, then they deserve every dime that they got. Yes, there was harassment in the plant. There were signs put on women's lockers that said, you're a fat pig,' or you're a Twinkie,' they made fun of people constantly and the supervisors let it go. ...

I think that some people really went too far and offended many women in the plant and those women deserve everything that they got (Clemons).

Clemons noted that when she worked at Beich Candy she also experienced and witnessed harassment. However, because the society was not as conscious of the issue during that time period, nothing was said. Despite the harassment problems, Clemons was still proud of her job and the company's product:

I like the camaraderie of working with people in my job at Mitsubishi. There are some things that I do by myself, but it really is a joint effort. You know, we make beautiful cars and it's nice seeing what you've made appear before your eyes. I enjoy it.

...My neighbors, they look down at me because I work at Mitsubishi and then when they find out that I chose to work in the factory, they find that strange. I often think they look down on me because I'm nothing more than a factory worker. But I like myself, I like the fact that I'm a factory worker. My husband likes me and he likes the fact that I'm a factory worker and my children are not embarrassed because I'm a factory worker. ...My family gets to reap the benefits of the things that I have received from being part of the UAW. ...My husband doesn't have the health care coverage that I have. ...Mine's a negotiated benefit. ...The people at State Farm, they can lose their job tomorrow and I can't because I have a contract that guarantees I have a job. ...I know how much money I'm going to be making, I know what my insurance benefits are, I know how much I can put into my retirement. ...And you don't have that without a union (Clemons).

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