NEW HAVEN, Conn. — When community leaders and elected officials showed up March 17 for a press conference at the Winchester plant’s Division Street entrance here, the company refused to open the gates so that workers could join in.

Angry and determined to hear what the community leaders had to say, the workers, who make the Winchester rifle at the U.S. Repeating Arms Company, left from another exit and came around the block to participate.

That sight sent a powerful message to company executives locked in negotiations with IAM Victory Lodge 609. Within hours, wage cuts, concessions in job security language and the threat to move 40 jobs out of state were off the table.

For months the company had been demanding major concessions, with the unspoken threat of the plant closing. In response, the Citizens Ad Hoc Committee, a group of retirees and residents that had mobilized solidarity over the years, reorganized for this fight.

A 17-week strike in 1979 and subsequent labor and community organizing had resulted in the city requiring the company to maintain 450 jobs in exchange for $21 million in state and local tax abatements. Five years ago, when the number of jobs had eroded, the Ad Hoc Committee mobilized with others and won an amended agreement prohibiting any further removal of production equipment, and a tax schedule pro-rated to the number of jobs.

The St. Patrick’s Day plant gate rally was an “11th hour” action, sponsored jointly with Grow Jobs CT, a coalition initiated by Machinists union District 26.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Connecticut’s two senators sent staffers to join members of the Board of Aldermen, the Alliance of Retired Americans, New Haven People’s Center and union leaders. Speakers demanded a decent contract offer and job security for this economic anchor in the largely African American Newhallville neighborhood.

At the union meeting three days later, members voted 85 to 52 to accept a contract with a one-year wage freeze, small raises in the other two years, and retention of language prohibiting the removal of jobs.

“The contract may not have been what everyone wanted it to be,” said Ad Hoc Committee head Craig Gouthier, who worked at the plant for 24 years and served as union president, “but given the circumstances, it is a tribute to the membership that they were able to get a contract without striking.”

Referring to the production that has been moved to nonunion areas, Gouthier said, “As long as the plant doors are open, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to call for all parts to be brought back so the complete gun can be made here in New Haven. We feel with the strength of the community, legislators and union this can be accomplished.”

joelle.fishman @ pobox.com

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