UAW Local 578 President Bob Lynk addresses a rally at Oshkosh Corp. calling on the company to build new postal trucks in Wisconsin instead of a nonunion plant in South Carolina. Members of the local’s bargaining committee stand in front. (Photo by Miles Maguire)
With the global headquarters of Oshkosh Corp. as a backdrop, more than 100 union members and supporters gathered Saturday afternoon to push their campaign for the company to build new post office trucks in Wisconsin.
The rally drew five Democratic candidates for Senate, who urged the corporation’s Oshkosh Defense unit to reconsider its decision to build the U.S. Postal Service’s Next Generation Delivery Vehicle in South Carolina.
The speakers targeted corporate management as well as Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has defended Oshkosh’s decision to set up its assembly line in another state.
Earlier this month, Johnson gave Democrats a sound bite that will be used repeatedly between now and November when he shrugged off the plans for South Carolina by saying, “It’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin.”
“I’m proud to join leaders from across the state who are calling on Oshkosh Defense to bring those jobs to Wisconsin,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is one of those hoping to become the Democratic challenger to Johnson.
“If Ron Johnson says we don’t need more good jobs here, we don’t need more Ron Johnson this November,” Barnes said.
With cries of “Build it union, build it here,” the crowd stood under a bright sun while huddling against a steady wind that brought the wind chill into the teens. The cold temperatures also served to shorten the rally to 90 minutes from a planned two hours.
While Johnson was the punching bag for most of the speakers, some also warned about the damage to the community if Oshkosh Defense goes forward with its plans to fulfill most of the postal contract at a nonunion plant in South Carolina instead of in Oshkosh, where manufacturing employees are represented by the United Auto Workers.
“To me, it’s not just about the missed opportunity of the jobs here,” said state Rep. Gordon Hintz, an Oshkosh Democrat. “When I hear they’re building a facility down in South Carolina that’s larger than what they need for this production, what does it say about existing production?”
UAW Region Four Director Ron McInroy recalled that the company in 2013 convinced Local 578 to reopen its labor agreement to put Oshkosh Defense in a better position for its successful bid on the nearly $7 billion contract for the military’s Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.
But the money that the company earned on that contract with Wisconsin workers is now going to fund South Carolina jobs, he said.
McInroy warned that the technology in the electric version of new postal trucks will likely be transferred over to the armed forces, which are Oshkosh Defense’s main customer. “To take that new technology and place it somewhere else is going to put you at a disadvantage when it comes to the forefront that the next military vehicle is going to be electric,” he said.
The company has said that about 1,000 jobs will be created for the assembly of the postal vehicles in South Carolina, while about 100 jobs will be created in Oshkosh to provide engineering and administrative support.
The main reason South Carolina was picked was the availability there of a large facility that could be used to meet the Postal Service’s timeline for new trucks, according to Oshkosh Defense. The company says that it is moving ahead with the South Carolina factory, and its website shows that it has begun recruiting there.
The contract is for up to 165,000 trucks over 10 years at an estimated cost of $6 billion or more. On Wednesday the post office rejected requests from the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the deal so that more of the vehicles could be produced with electric drivetrains.
Local 578 President Bob Lynk had posted a letter to Facebook in which he called on “every one of our members, their family, and the entire community” to attend the rally, noting that workers would be sacrificing “a couple of hours of your negotiated weekend.” But attendance was relatively light given that the local has about 1,600 hourly employees on its active rolls.
Local media accounts said the rally drew hundreds of supporters, but that is an exaggeration of the turnout. Even the UAW’s press release described the attendance as in the “dozens.” At its height, the rally may have had 150 attendees, but that number had dwindled by about half when the final speaker came to the podium.
Although the weather may not have been ideal for an outdoor rally, Oshkosh residents routinely engage in winter activities under far worse conditions. In fact hundreds were on nearby Lake Winnebago Saturday, which was the next to the last day of the sturgeon spearing season.
The local says that it is trying to develop broad community support for its campaign to put all the postal jobs in Oshkosh. But on Tuesday the Oshkosh Common Council stepped back from a request to support the local’s fight to have the postal trucks built locally.
Instead the council passed a resolution that merely “encourages Oshkosh Defense, when possible, to use local Oshkosh Defense resources and facilities to help build the Next Generation Delivery Vehicles for the United States Postal Service.”
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No one from the local appeared at the meeting to speak to the council about the jobs situation.
The dispute over the production location may not end well for Wisconsin workers, but it has provided plenty of political fodder for the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in this year’s Senate race. All took turns at Saturday’s rally taking swipes at the company and Johnson.
One candidate, Alex Lasry, an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks, reminded listeners that his billionaire father drove UPS trucks before law school and has a longstanding appreciation for union labor.
“Those values are what brought us to build Fiserv Forum 100% union,” he said, referring to the Bucks’ home arena. “We knew that if we wanted something built right, if we wanted something that was worthy of Wisconsin and worthy of an NBA championship, we knew that it had to be done by people from Wisconsin, and union labor.”
“Oshkosh Defense was given this contract because of you,” said another Democratic candidate, Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski. “The union workers built this company from the ground up.”
She accused Johnson of “not showing up for work” to defend local jobs. “This isn’t the first time Ron Johnson hasn’t done right for Wisconsin. But, you know what, we’ll make damn sure it’s his last.”
Yet another Democratic hopeful, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, called Johnson South Carolina’s third senator. Nelson also noted that Oshkosh has been the recipient of millions of dollars from state and local taxpayers.
“Why is it that when corporations are groveling for, or extorting, millions from taxpayers, it’s called capitalism?” he asked. “But when we asked them to do their part to keep jobs right here in Wisconsin, it’s called socialism.”
Steven Olikara, a Brookfield entrepreneur and founder of the Millennial Action Project, is also running to unseat Johnson. “We need to fight in the tradition of Fighting Bob La Follette, in the tradition of Ed Garvey,” Olikara said. “We’re going to send a strong message to Oshkosh Corp., to Ron Johnson and all the politicians that are bought off by these interests.”
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