5,000 protesters to Whirlpool: We’re tired of being treated like trash

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – There is a saying that there is nothing wrong with being knocked down, but when it becomes more comfortable being down than getting back up it is time to get up. For several decades, American workers keep getting knocked down as corporation after corporation move good, middle class jobs to third-world countries claiming poverty, even at a time when companies are reaching record profits. But the Whirlpool workers at the Evansville, Indiana, plant, along with over 5,000 other working Americans, stood back up and decided they don’t want to be knocked down anymore.

A rally hosted by the IUE-CWA (International Union of Electrical Workers – Communications Workers of America) and led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka took place Friday, Feb. 26 with a simple message: The American middle class is being eroded by corporate greed.

“Whirlpool is a bad corporate citizen who is twisting this country’s desire to reduce energy usage and using it to export jobs. We are pushing hard to ensure that good intentions on going green don’t help fund loss of good manufacturing jobs,” said IUE-CWA President Jim Clark.

Whirlpool had revenues of more than $4.8 billion in the past quarter alone. The company also recently received $19 million as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yet, the company is spending $110 million to build a new plant in Mexico. Yet it is willing to put over 1,000 workers on the street.

“If there was ever any doubt in anyone’s mind how Whirlpool feels about the people that work for them, this should relieve that now,” said Darrell Collins, local union president, in a statement to members. “It is clear that all they care about is the money. These 1,100 hourly people, the 400 salary people, and the community should take comfort in the fact that you are expendable to make a dollar.”

Trumka, along with dozens of union members, delivered thousands of petition signatures from people across the country who are tired of seeing companies claim patriotism on television ads and then turn around and destroy American communities the next day.

“We just tried to deliver the petitions but nobody was home. But we have known that for a while,” said Trumka. “These are our jobs and we intend to claim them.”

Although the petitions will have little effect on the decision of Whirlpool to destroy thousands of families in Evansville, the 5,000-plus rally-goers hope it will make an impact on other companies thinking of doing the same.

“We drove over five hours from Portsmouth, Ohio, to be here and support the workers of Whirlpool. But this is about something bigger as well,” said Shawnee District Labor Council Secretary-Treasurer Austin Keyser. “We, as Americans, cannot sit idly by while companies take our hard-earned tax dollars and use them to destroy our lives, our families and our neighborhoods. It is time we said enough is enough and this turnout shows me the American worker is getting tired of being treated like trash.”

According to investors.whirlpoolcorp.com, 2009 fourth quarter net earnings for Whirlpool rose 111 percent to $95 million compared to the fourth quarter of 2008. Sales of merchandise also increased. They were $4.9 billion, a 13 percent increase compared to the fourth quarter of 2008. When factoring in costs and foreign exchange changeover fourth quarter sales in 2009 were still 5 percent greater compared to 2008.

“It’s not wrong to make a profit, but let’s not turn our backs on the people who made it for us,” said Tony Lee, an 18-year plant employee who joined Friday’s protest.

With their jobs and livelihoods on the line, workers from the Whirlpool plant received a letter from plant executive Paul Coburn telling them that taking part in the peaceful demonstration could cost them employment opportunity once they are laid off. To think a company, who for no other reason than pure greed, would want to take away the last vestige of hope of the same employees that made the company as profitable as it is, is almost unthinkable.

“This particular closing takes things to a whole new level,” Trumka said. “Whirlpool not only wants to take jobs and send them to Mexico, they want to take their first amendment rights, their right to free speech.” Not only that, they are taking the dignity and respect from the hardworking women and men.

“I had a brother who worked down there 37 years,” rally participant Roger Myers said. “My father died on a picket line out here in 1983 … Corporate gets bigger and bigger and they’re killing us.”

The rally began with chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A,” “Keep it made in America” and “Save our jobs,” and ended with President Trumka addressing the crowd with a bullhorn and thousands of protesters keeping quiet to hear his words. From there, a peaceful march was made back to union hall where Trumka addressed the crowd more formally.

“Eleven million jobs have gone with the Great Recession. Nothing, nothing, is more important here at this moment,” Trumka told a packed room at the Local 808 chapter of the IUE-CWA, which represents many of the workers at Whirlpool’s Evansville plant.

He said national leaders have too often let jobs slip away with their policies and now it’s up to them to undo the harm with a jobs program “to rebuild the foundation of our society and restore our middle class.”

Jason Perlman is communications manager for the Ohio AFL-CIO.

Photo: Jason Perlman, Ohio AFL-CIO