Twenty-three degrees, sharp wind, and yet a crowd of around 100 or more shivered behind United Auto Workers 180 Hall in Racine, WI on December 17th. Since May 2nd, Case New Holland Industrial union workers have been on strike outside the plant. And seven months later they’re still at it, while union workers from as far away as Iowa travelled to push them through the holiday season. Honking and cheers filled the air as Michele Bendix danced in a Grinch suit at the intersection of Oakes Road and Durand Avenue. A UAW worker at the plant, she gave a summary of the situation.
“Our contract expired in May. A new contract that wasn’t good enough or wasn’t given to us then, so we walked out on that day, and we’ve been out since then,” she said. “Negotiations haven’t been going great, so it is now December, and we’re still out here, and we’ll continue to be out here until we get a contract that’s fair enough for everybody, and then we can return to work.” The wind ripped through my layers like a butter knife, and I hadn’t been out here for hours. I gripped my microphone, fingers turning white, then purple. A semi-truck drove by, blasting its horn.
“So overall, between everybody, we did take a survey. So, we kind of figured out what everybody’s top tiers were. Wages were one, I know they’ve taken out the cost of living,” Michele continued. CNH recently reported a third quarter net income of $559 million, with consolidated revenues over 5 billion. Meanwhile, the current starting pay for a CNH worker in Racine is $20.93. While she’d only been at the plant for less than a year, she filled me in on the top sticking points in negotiations. “Insurance was another thing. There were some other little things like the pension and 401k, but the big thing was wages. We want living wages for everybody that’s gonna give us what we need, and we can survive.”
A gray and blue police cruiser idled in the parking lot across the road. Workers marched back and forth in front of the chain link fence, blue and white signs in gloved hand: “UAW ON STRIKE.”
But my conversation with Michele was simply the culmination of a day’s journey through southeastern Wisconsin. Joining organizer Tim Cordon as he piloted a “Unity Bus” across the byways, the caravan picked up supporters in Janesville, Whitewater, and Waterford. It first convened at the Madison Labor Temple, where I spoke with Michael Jones, the president of the teacher’s unit of Madison Teachers Incorporated, who was scheduled to speak at the rally.
“I think sometimes it’s a little weird like why a Madison teacher would be interested in the plight of workers in Racine who assemble parts,” he said, after I asked him about the connection. “But, you know, my students, my kids, my community come from Racine and go to Racine for jobs, for a better opportunity, for life reasons. We’re all connected, especially in this state. And to ignore that is to allow people to divide and conquer us.”
Day-Glo murals decorated the Labor Temple interior walls by the entrance stairwell where we spoke, depicting union workers and strikers. The figures looked down upon us as Jones continued.
“When they divide us, and they keep us away from each other, they do so out of fear that like when we do come together, we can actually move mountains. And the work of the UAW down in Racine directly impacts Racine schools and Racine teachers and as someone who’s in solidarity with the Racine Educators Association… it impacts all of us, so we need to make sure that we don’t let them split us up.”
Then the time came to move. The “Building Unity” caravan hit the highway, passing abandoned storefronts and crumbling strip malls. Our first stop lay in an abandoned Toys R’ Us parking lot in Janesville, where we picked up new joiners like Susan Johnson.
“I am living in Janesville right now, and I have for seventeen years, but I’m originally from Kenosha, Wisconsin. Which, if anybody knows about that, they know that one of the biggest industries in Kenosha was the car industry and American Motors was there and UAW Local 72 was there. And my dad worked at AMC all of his life and he was a proud member of UAW Local 72, and I’m here for him. It’s just so important for us all to fight together because I have to say if you don’t stand up, you’re…” She didn’t finish that sentence.
The journey from Madison to Whitewater had been a straight shot; now, leaving the frozen asphalt lot, the remaining legs through Whitewater and Waterford lay on the back roads. A few red lights and a wrong turn later, I lost the van as we drove into Whitewater.
That stretch between Whitewater and Waterford I navigated alone, without any guide through that eternal place. Instead, I was left to pass empty fields, crumbling storefronts, and bare trees standing beside dirty ice piles. A technicolor billboard proclaimed the benefits of a local radio station. I turned the dial and heard hymnals.
The full force of the rally appeared when we pulled up to the United Auto Workers 180, or UAW 180, Hall at 2pm. Mere blocks from the CNH factory, supporters sang and spoke before heading over to show their support. I spoke with Bryan Pfeifer, co-host of We Rise Fighting Labor and one of the event organizers.
“We’ve been working to organize this today for weeks. My co-host Ric Urrutia has been on the ground here since Tuesday, here in Racine. And we have been in union hall all day every day, and it’s been very heartwarming and very touching and very amazing to see. I mean like literally every five minutes, ten minutes, every hour people are bringing by food. Today we saw somebody who literally made handmade scarves for the strikers. Food is coming in, all kinds of tremendous support every day, all day. And that’s really what heartens the strikers and their loved ones. These strikers are 700 here and 400 in Burlington, Iowa. They have children, they have family, they need food to come in and that’s really helped them a lot. We have things going on at the Union Hall all the time, the rally today, and this is keeping folks moving and keeping their fightback spirit alive.”
He also believed this represented the larger union movement occurring across the country. “I think, especially after the pandemic, we as workers are absolutely fed up. We know that we built this country, our loved ones passed on or got very sick during the Covid pandemic. We were told that we were essential, and now we’re told by these Wall Street barons, these filthy vultures and greedy, so-called human beings, that now they’re going to toss us out on the scrap heap after we just kept literally hundreds of millions of people alive moving product, doing what we do as workers in this society. And so many workers today are like ‘We’re fed up, we’re gonna fight, we’re done.’”
In Racine, you didn’t have to drive further than a few blocks to see this. The supporter caravan moved serpentine through the town, passing boarded windows. I saw multitudes on all sides of me: A crumbling ice cream shop. Faded murals where a pizza parlor used to live. Rusted cars. The wind and gray clouds didn’t help any matter. It was easy to feel depressed.
And yet, people showed up and stayed outside throughout the speeches and chants. As temperatures dipped towards the teens and the sun set, strikers and supporters alike stood firmly in front of the chain link fence surrounding the factory.
Pfeifer continued: “You know, from Starbucks workers, to Amazon workers, to the workers here at CNHi, we’re not taking it anymore, we’re gonna fight back. There’s people on the move across the country. We saw an amazing day today: there were educators out here, Starbucks workers were here, healthcare workers were here. All united, saying ‘We’re not taking this anymore, we’re not taking any greedy bosses.’ We’re gonna fight for what’s ours, we’re gonna fight for our loved ones, and we’re gonna keep it moving, and we’re going to build a better society where everybody has a right to a job, everybody has a right to healthcare, and everybody has the right to a union. And we have communities that actually care about each other, and we don’t have bosses that try to kill us every day and take everything that we have worked so hard to win over the years. So, we’re here in solidarity, and we’re going to continue, and we’re going to move forward with this.”
I hopped in my car and began the long trek home around 4pm. But one image remained: outside Whitewater, the caravan passed a crumbling farm silo standing sentry by a fallow field. Someone had spray-painted “John 15:5” in red letters across the side. To quote: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.” As if echoing Ric Urrutia’s rally speech.
“In the age of globalization, when they tell you not to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the immigrants. When they tell you not to create international solidarity, we have to break beyond that! That’s what’s gonna win this! We have to make it seem like the Mexican workers, the Italian workers, the French workers, the Chinese workers, those are our next-door neighbors now. We have no choice, that’s the reality. All are workers, interconnected. We are in the same struggle because we are the international working class, and we are going to win this. Solidarity, folks!”