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As 'Right to Work' Law Looms, Indiana Occupiers and Striking Union Members Fight for Working People

Striking workers at a limestone company find their fight against private equity ownership at the center of Indiana's battle for workers' rights.

 An unexpected alliance is blooming seven weeks into a hard winter strike by 50 Millworkers at the Indiana Limestone Company: The participants of Occupy Bloomington in that nearby college town are rallying to their cause.

The millworkers, members of Local 8093 of the Carpenters Industrial Council in Oolitic, Indiana, rejected a concessionary contract and by unanimous vote went on strike November 15.

Union negotiators had been expecting the company, once family-owned but now part of a private equity firm, to move on some of its demands for work rule concessions. The company had proposed ending weekly safety meetings in a job where Millworkers operate heavy machinery, precision cutting tools, and move limestone pieces that weigh in excess of 6 tons. The company had also demanded an end to just cause standards for discipline and radical changes in attendance policies.

Instead the company upped the ante: Not only did the concessions remain, but management now wanted to cancel basic seniority rights. Local 8093 members decided to make a stand and hit the picket line, supported by 18 members of the Journeymen Stonecutters and Machinists who perform the skilled task of fabricating the end product at the mill. The Stonecutters negotiate separately but felt their bargaining position was bound up in solidarity with the Millwrights.

The strike has dragged on into January as workers weathered the holiday season without paychecks. The trappings of the strike are familiar, with picket lines thrown up at the two main plant entrances, the scene of some physical confrontations and loud voices.

Local media played down the strike or presented the strikers as overpaid ingrates who were disrupting business and backing up traffic with their picket line.

Nearby unions gave what support they could in an area where union density has been particularly hard hit by the departure of jobs from companies like RCA/Thompson, Otis Elevator, and General Electric.

Finding Your Local 1%

Indiana is drenched in anti-unionism: A new Republican majority was elected to the Statehouse in 2010 and a “ right-to-work” law is likely to pass the legislature in January (unless Democrats repeat their 2011 tactic and leave the state). Many local papers and a portion of public opinion reflect local hostility to organized labor in a region where some people blame unions for job loss.

So it came as a surprise to see the wholehearted support the strikers have garnered from the community, in particular from the small but vocal Occupy movement in Bloomington, about 20 miles north. Both sides have found common ground as the 99%, and both have identified a common enemy in the local face of the 1%—Resilience Capital Partners, which owns Indiana Limestone.

Resilience is the new player in Indiana’s limestone industry. Like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, Resilience specializes in “flipping” mid-range “stressed” companies like Indiana Limestone. The private equity firm buys them up, strips them down, lowers their labor costs, and sells them to investors.

It’s the same process that has occurred throughout the country for the past 30 years, turning family-owned businesses into “lean and mean” concerns, in the process destroying good union jobs and shrinking the tax base in communities that are struggling to survive.

While company officials make the usual statements about being fair-minded corporate citizens, the fact is that there had been only one other brief strike in Indiana Limestone’s long history, while in two years Resilience had made it clear it was only about lowering costs in order to resell.

Whose Benefit?

As it became obvious that the strike was going to drag on through Christmas and that things were getting tight for the strikers and their families, several occupiers who had stood on the picket line decided to organize a benefit to buy toys for the workers’ kids.

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