Olney Odyssey #13. Stay or Pay – Fighting the Runaway Shop

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In November of 1974 when we met with the Company’s management team and their attorney, Alan Tepper, we had a sense of something ominous. Tepper was a tall slender man with a huge head of silver hair. UE Organizer, Michael Eisenscher was accustomed to call him the “Silver Fox”. Wily fox he was indeed, because while we thought we had got the best of the company in our collective bargaining for a first contract, Tepper had skillfully protected his client’s ultimate interests. Our labor agreement provided that if the Company moved within a 30-mile radius of the Roxbury site that the union and its agreement would be honored. Tepper announced the company’s impending move at the end of the year to Nashua, New Hampshire exactly 45 miles away.

The New England area had been racked by capital flight. Lawrence and Lowell had been decimated post WW II by the desertion of the textile industry to the South. Lawrence has never recovered, and Lowell only experienced a renaissance because of the growth of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the federal largess of hometown boy, US Senator Paul Tsongas.

“… but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since.”

And New Hampshire shouldn’t have surprised us as the destination. It was the “South of the North” for runaways. Lots of Massachusetts manufacturing capital was seeking low taxes, no unions and cheaper real estate in New Hampshire cities like Nashua, Keene and Portsmouth-Dover. The threat or actual closure can paralyze and incapacitate the will, but our reaction to the company’s announcement was our program of “Stay or Pay”, either stay on Albany Street or within the 30-mile radius or pay dearly in wage and benefit severance. Eisenscher, our resourceful UE Rep immediately began working the politics of the City and the State in seeking locational assistance offers ¬¬and tax packages that would force the Company to reconsider and stay. I took charge of the public pressure campaign and pulled together a committee to Fight the Runaway of Mass Machine, and of course in keeping with the revolutionary fervor of the times to Fight all Runaways!

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The shocking announcement of the relocation so soon after our union vote and first contract gave me pause to reflect on a couple of bigger questions. Was the company moving in response to our frequent and militant actions over everything from health and safety to management’s right to employ temps? If we had been a little less active, would they have made the move? Bottom line, were they moving because of me?!! After all here I was a young college educated kid raising hell and Cain in line with my ideological commitment to radical revolutionary change often with no regard to personal consequences. Was that admirable courage and commitment, or rather a sense of entitlement that meant I could always do something else if the job got eliminated? The same wasn’t true for Ernesto from Benevento, Campania, Italia and Juan from Ponce, Puerto Rico, or Eddie Murphy from Southie. I’ll never know the answer to these questions, but I do know that the question of my own agency has tempered my approach to organizing ever since. I’m always trying to check my self out and evaluate whether the strategy and tactics I am proposing are more about my subjective needs than that of the workers I am working with either as a comrade in the shop or as a staff organizer.

Fighting the Mass Machine move became a minor cause celeb in the left labor community that had grown up around UE Local 262. On October 23 we held a rally at the loading dock in the company parking lot in Roxbury. We were joined by a large contingent from the newly organized Cambridge Thermionic Corporation (Cambion). 400 manufacturing workers from this facility had voted UE in July earlier that year. They brought with them signs in English and Portuguese because there was a particularly large Cape Verdean and Azorean workforce. I emceed the rally and Charles Lowell, a UE Vice President and leader of the GE production facility in Ashland, Massachusetts was the featured speaker. Things moved fast after the rally. On November 6 the company announced that the move would happen in January 1975, and later in November they began to lay off the least senior workers. When those lay-offs happened the workers informed us that they had not received the contractually agreed upon Supplementary Unemployment Benefits. We gathered the small group of workers together with our stewards and barged into the executive offices to confront Vice President Jim McGrath about the payment of the differential to the layed off workers. We met with McGrath in his office and demanded the payments that would bridge the difference between unemployment and a worker’s regular take-home. McGrath was so flustered that he panicked and turned to the company safe behind him and pulled out a wad of cash that he proceeded to dole out to the layed-off and anyone else who stuck their hand out, if only we would leave his office immediately.

“I’ll never forget watching a health and safety … explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil … could eventually cause sterility in males.”

On January 8th, in the dead of a Boston winter, we rallied on Albany Street at the company’s main entrance. The public pressure was mounting and Eisenscher had successfully gotten the State of Massachusetts to weigh in and show the company several vacant facilities nearby that could be used for manufacturing. The City of Boston even prepared plans, which would provide the Company with land and a new factory built to specification, which then would be sold to the Company and financed with low interest bonds or leased by the City to them. On February 12 the company informed us that they had decided to postpone indefinitely its move. Our mood was one of cautious celebration, but on April 18th, 1975 the company announced that the final day of production at Mass Machine in Roxbury would be July 1, 1975. We held one final rally against the shutdown on June 17th and we did receive a considerable severance package, but the deed was done and the factory moved to New Hampshire. Some of the workers relocated, particularly the Italian immigrants, but most of the workforce had to look for new jobs.

I know that in the final months we openly discussed the tactic of occupying the factory and seizing the equipment ala Flint, Michigan 1936-1937 as a way to deter the runaway. I am not sure why we didn’t. Certainly factory occupations run in the UE gene. In light of Republic Doors and Windows campaign in Chicago in December of 2008 I wish we had. The UE membership in that facility, facing an impending closure, barricaded themselves inside the factory demanding that the company remain open. Their battle became a national story and captured the support of then President-elect Barrack Obama. They were able to find another buyer for the company and keep the plant open. The tactic can resonate and garner broad worker and public support.

Mass Machine was a great learning laboratory for me. Among other things I learned the power of the health and safety issue to motivate workers. I’ll never forget watching a health and safety expert from Urban Planning Aid in Cambridge, Massachusetts explain to a room full of punch press operators that machine oil, if not prevented from splattering on our laps by oil guards, could eventually cause sterility in males. When that was translated into Spanish and Italian the room groaned, and all were immediately united on the need to fight for the UE’s health and safety platform.

Next: Organizing at Advent Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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One thought on Olney Odyssey #13. Stay or Pay – Fighting the Runaway Shop

  1. As usual, Peter, you’ve given us not only an interesting story but much to think about. So I do have a question apropos your concern that maybe your position in such situations might harm the very workers you intend to help. Did any of those workers ever express any resentment–accuse you just what you describe: probably not referring to “ideology but more to your “privileged” situation in life.?

    In response to John Bowman’s comment I never received any criticism to my face of my actions, but I always got unsolicited advice that I should go to law school! The organizer, now President Barrack Obama followed that advice, but I did not! Peter

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