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70 Years of Unionism
Updated On: Jun 28, 2021

70 Years of Unionism
The History of United Auto Workers Local 72
Kenosha, Wisconsin
By Erik Gunn
It was early November of 1933. Workers inside the dark Nash Motors factory in the city of Kenosha faced a change in how they were paid. Company management, hoping to head off discontent, imposed a new piecework-based pay scheme. Workers in the plant’s Final Assembly Department tried it for one day. Their pay – 35 cents an hour, less than $3 a day – didn’t budge. So on November 9, 1933, neither did the workers.
Four years before their fellow workers at General Motors’ plant in Flint, Mich., would do so, 100 Kenosha autoworkers sat down on the job, refusing to work, refusing to leave the plant during their shift.
Although the union that would later become United Auto Workers Local 72 had been formed months before, that day was a baptism of solidarity – the first collective act of defiance by workers who would no longer tolerate the uncertain conditions that governed their working lives. Today, the union marks that date as its true birthday.
The employees who sat down that day did so to stand up for justice on the job. They and their fellow workers lived uncertain lives. They punched timecards and reported to work, yet did not know whether they’d get paid. They might stand for hours – their time not their own, but never paid for – while they waited for an assembly line to start up.
Summertime brought model changeovers – and four to six weeks of layoff with no pay. When work resumed, no one was guaranteed the chance to return to work. Older employees risked seeing younger, stronger men – or those who did more favors for the foremen – go back first. Workers pushed aside had no one to stand up for them, no union to fight for their rights on the job.
Step by step, beginning on that November day, the union those workers helped build has changed all of that. It has become a force for bringing security and justice to the lives of thousands of men and women – the autoworkers of Kenosha, their families, and the community in which they lived. For 70 years, the people who built this union inside those factory gates helped build a stronger community outside it. They helped bring to working men and women wages, benefits, and working conditions far beyond what the visionaries who founded this union ever could have hoped. These are people who acted on principle and learned to forge their collective power, people who stood up for the rights of workers and stood with the community to make a better world.
This is their story.
The Darkness Before the Dawn
In 1916 Charles Nash bought the Jeffrey Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin, for $15 million. The plant’s 1,000 employees made four-wheel-drive trucks and automobiles. They were largely immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe. They spoke as many as 21 different languages.
Nash expanded the business during the Roaring Twenties. By 1928 138,000 cars rolled out its gates every year, and money was pouring into Nash’s coffers. Then the Great Depression fell, and production with it: In 1929, the plant produced less than 15,000 cars for the year. Thousands of Nash workers were laid off. Those who stayed on the job rarely worked a full week, and their pay reflected it.
Even in good times, though, the working conditions kept the employees weak and divided. Plant foremen held all the power, hiring and firing employees at will. Seniority meant nothing, at Nash or in any other automobile plant. Workers lost their jobs for any reason – and for no reason at all. Nothing protected them; no one would even listen to their complaints.
The pace of work burned out workers by the time they turned 40 years old. At model changeover time, these older, worn-out employees were cast aside in favor of younger, quicker men who were kept on. Armies of unemployed young man spawned by the Great Depression gathered each day outside the plant, desperate for work; they stood ready to take the jobs of any who would stand up against the company’s unfair treatment. The workers inside, equally desperate to keep their jobs, would bribe foremen with gifts ranging from fruit and vegetables to Prohibition bootleg whiskey.
And what were the jobs they so anxiously fought to keep?
They were low paid. Wages in the early 1930s ranged from 35 cents an hour to an average of 40 to 48 cents an hour – and then were paid only when cars actually passed a work group’s work station on the assembly line. When the line stopped for repairs or because of production bottlenecks outside the workers’ control, the pay stopped too. Paid vacation, paid holidays, health insurance and pensions were unheard of.
They were grueling. When production hit peak periods, the workday extended to nine hours, with an extra half-day on Saturdays. Because of the piecework pay system, employees could wind up working as much as 18 hours a day at straight time. What overtime pay there was typically went to the foreman’s favorites.
They were insecure. Once peak production periods ended, the workweek shrank to as little as 18 hours. No unemployment compensation, no call-in pay, no supplementary unemployment benefits, made up the difference. For the entire year of 1932, according to his W-2 form, worker Lawrence Michel of Department 833, Final Assembly, earned a paltry $282.31.
No sweepers cleaned up the Nash plant. Production workers took on the task at the end of their workday. They washed up at the end of the day on their own time – cleaning themselves with water drawn from old paint buckets. Foremen moved workers around the plant at will, giving them no opportunity to bid up to better-paying or less strenuous tasks. Those who were too old or too slow for a job found themselves out of one.
The workers at Nash lacked control over their jobs and over their lives. To gain some measure of both, they saw only one solution: to band together in a union that would help them win fair treatment, dignity, and a living wage.
Nash workers first discovered the power of working together to better their condition in 1920. In the factory’s body-finishing shop, trimmers walked off their jobs, demanding a 10 percent raise. The halt in the assembly line lit a red light bulb in Charley Nash’s office. He walked out to the finishing department and told the men they had only one choice as pieceworkers: for a 10 percent raise, they would have to work 10 percent faster.
Eight years later, a group of employees in the rubbing department walked out four times in three weeks. They did so just after model change, when the strain was highest on employees and, they may have hoped, the company was most vulnerable.
In 1929 came the first serious attempt to organize a union among Nash workers. Felix Olkives, president of the Kenosha Trades and Labor Council, spearheaded the drive, signing up workers with the American Federation of Labor. “Progress was slow due to the need for secrecy,” the Kenosha Labor newspaper recounted. “Felix went house to house talking to workers. He held small meetings. Key men were selected in each department to feel out the workers and to secure names and addresses of others to be contacted.” Nearly 100 workers signed union cards, paying $2 each in initiation fees.
Then came the fall of 1929. The stock market crashed, the nation’s economy tumbled, and Nash production came to a standstill. Union supporters were laid off, and the union drive collapsed. Olkives refunded the initiation fees to the laid-off workers, who needed every penny to make ends meet.
The Union Rises
By 1933, however, workers got a new chance to organize. A new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sat in the White House, elected vowing to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt shaped what he called The New Deal – a collection of laws and policies that would bring the federal government to the aid of impoverished working people across the nation. The cornerstone of those laws was the National Recovery Act, and Section 7 of the Act gave workers the right to “organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
Charles Nash dismissed the New Deal as “socialistic” and “un-American.” The men who worked for him, however, did not. Once again Felix Olkives came out to the Nash plant. He and other labor activists spoke to the 3,000 workers who streamed in and out of the factory at shift change, passing out leaflets and union authorization cards in the summer and early fall. Years later, one witness, former Kenosha Labor editor Harold “Red” Newton, could still recall the excitement in the air: “I recall vividly the union ferment in Kenosha in 1933 and 1934 and the hectic days that ensued,” Newton said in an interview in 1985. “All of us officers of the Trades Council were on an exciting merry-go-round, shuttling from the Nash plant to the Simmons plant, to the American Brass, to Vincent McCall, Frost, Specialty Brass, Snap-on Tools. . .”
Pro-union workers from across Kenosha, including a contingent from Nash, marched up 60th Street on Labor Day 1933, demanding the right to organize and recognition of their unions. Inside the Nash plant, workers, led by those in the foundry and on the final assembly line, rushed to sign union cards and pay initiation fees. In September of 1933, the union had enough support for the American Federation of Labor to charter AFL-Federal Labor Union 19008 to represent the Nash workers. To head the new union, AFL officials appointed Eugene Stauder its first President and Lawrence Michel Vice President.
The union’s membership grew slowly – and then exploded. First to light the fuse was Charles Nash himself. Nash and his managers bitterly opposed the union movement. He called its organizers “communistic” and vowed never to recognize the union. Nash followed the examples of Ford, GM, and Chrysler, setting up a “company union” to block workers from real self-representation. Nash called his organization the “department representation plan,” enrolling hourly and management employees alike. Local 19008 attacked the plan, and hourly workers stayed away.
Nash didn’t stop there, however. His managers – hoping to put a stopper in the discontent that was fueling the union drive – offered a new group piecework system in Department 833, Final Assembly, where average wages were 35 cents an hour. The plan went into effect November 8. Declaring they saw no improvement after one day, workers sat down in protest on November 9, 1933.
The sit-down strike in final assembly brought Charles Nash out on the factory floor. Give him time, he urged the workers. He promised he would review the rates if the new system could get a longer trial. The employees stood their ground, a collective No.
Nash locked out all 3,000 workers at the plant.
Outside the plant that afternoon, hundreds of Nash workers who had heard of the sit-down greeted the Final Assembly sit-down strikers. That night, more than 1,500 jammed the Italian American hall at a mass meeting for Nash workers to pass the word about the job action. Hundreds of more workers signed Local 19008 membership cards. That day, one of the action’s leaders, Paul Russo, would later say, marked “the birth of Wisconsin’s largest labor union, Local 72.”
Union members elected three Final Assembly department members to deal with management: Russo, George Nordstrom, and W.G. “Bill” Kult. Their demands were simple: recognize the union, and increase wages.
The lockout-turned-strike did not stop. On November 10, pickets turned away two railroad carloads of sand for the plant foundry. “The trainmen, being union members, held the cars outside the factory gates for an hour at the request of the pickets, and then returned them to the [Chicago &] Northwestern [Railway] yards,” the Milwaukee Journal reported the next day.
The plant stayed shut down for a week. Charles Nash at last agreed to meet with the union committee – in a plant storage room. With no chairs to sit in, the committee members presented their demands standing up. Nash replied by dangling the plant keys in front of them, threatening to close the plant and “throw the keys in Lake Michigan” rather than recognize the union.
Yet within a week he had backed down, prodded by the Chicago office of the Regional Labor Board. Nash agreed to recognize collective bargaining, bargain with the workers’ elected committee, and to not discriminate against strikers. When the plant reopened, Local 19008 had solidified its strength, while the company union disappeared for good. In the months that followed, the local’s leaders mastered the day-to-day tasks of operating a union – establishing, for instance, a requirement that grievances be submitted to the bargaining committee in writing.
Besides help from Felix Olkives of the American Federation of Labor, union leaders got help from their own members who had come from other union workplaces: primarily coal-mine workers and railroad employees. On December 30, 1933, Local 19008 elected its first president, Eugene Stauder, but Stauder resigned less than a month later. He was replaced by John Milkent, who was elected president without opposition, and who went on to serve five consecutive terms until 1939.
By January 1, 1934, Local 19008 recorded 970 fully paid members, and a similar number of partially paid ones. With no dues check-off, union officers had to collect dues directly from members.
America’s First Union-Built Car
Having established itself in the plant, the union’s next significant struggle was for a fair seniority system – combating the company’s practice of using up workers and spitting them out in favor of younger ones. Nash resisted plantwide seniority. To press their demand, workers at the company’s Seaman Body plant in Milwaukee – which shipped automobile bodies to Kenosha – and workers at a Nash plant in Racine together went on strike in February 1934, demanding a wage hike and a seniority system. On March 1, the Kenosha local’s 1,866 paid members joined the walkout.
The three union locals made a pact of solidarity, vowing to stay out until the company agreed to terms acceptable to all three. They formed a Grand Executive Council representing all three locals. On March 9, the council presented six demands to Nash management. Among the demands: recognition of plantwide bargaining committees in each of the three facilities; adherence to seniority in layoff and recall; and a wage hike.
The strikers hung on for seven weeks. Kenosha merchants, although hobbled by the Great Depression, sympathized with the strikers and donated fuel and food. The Regional Labor Board again stepped in, proposing a final settlement. Its terms, approved by the three unions and by management, represented a significant victory for the unions. Nash agreed to collective bargaining, to a seniority rule for layoff and recall, and to an increase in wages. The one-paragraph agreement that Nash President E.H. McCarty signed on April 11, 1934, represents the first written contract for Kenosha autoworkers.
The victorious members of Local 19008 celebrated with a party at the Eagles Club ballroom. By June, the three Nash locals in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee pointed with pride to the 1934 Nash Lafayette as the first all-union-built automobile in the United States.
The 1934 strike victory further bolstered the union’s power. By the end of April 1934, nearly every worker in the Kenosha plant had joined Local 19008. The elected bargaining committee met every Monday with Nash management to present workers’ complaints. To monitor the seniority system and ensure that no new men were hired during layoffs to displace older workers, the union created a new post: Director of Employment.
Building a Nationwide Union
The influence of the young Kenosha local reached well beyond the plant and the community. The autoworkers at Nash saw firsthand the benefits of a strong, plantwide industrial union, instead of separate unions representing varying crafts within a single factory. They also knew that wages and working conditions at Nash would not improve significantly until workers in the rest of the auto industry – including the giants General Motors and Ford – also had union representation. To the members of Kenosha Local 19008, the answer was obvious: auto industry workers needed a strong, national union made up of industrial unions like their own.
Representatives of Local 19008 traveled to Detroit in June 1934 to meet with leaders from other AFL Federal Labor Unions. Six other locals took part: from Seaman in Milwaukee, the Nash plant in Racine, and one local from each of four other automakers: Studebaker, Packard, Hudson, and Willys-Overland of Toledo. These independent union leaders sharply criticized the American Federation of Labor. AFL leaders, they said, hadn’t worked to organize auto industry employees. They called on the federation’s executive council to form a national autoworkers union.
In 1935, the AFL called the nation’s first convention of autoworkers in Detroit. Kenosha’s Local 19008 sent 21 delegates, who joined representatives of 65 other unions at the national convention. There, the AFL chartered the new United Autoworkers Union. From the start, Kenosha delegates exercised their influence. The Kenosha group demanded elected leaders and submitted an 11-point resolution to the Convention that called for a single union organizing all auto industry workers “regardless of kind of work, race, creed or color.” Officers, the resolution said, should be elected “from actual workers in the industry by the delegates at the Convention, salaries to be comparable with autoworkers’ wages, but not to exceed $2,500 per year.”
Although the Local 19008 resolution won the support of a majority of convention delegates, AFL president William Green ignored their wishes. Instead of holding elections, he appointed the union’s president and its top officers. Despite their disappointment in the AFL leadership, leaders of Local 19008 realized that the convention still represented a major step forward for the autoworkers. On November 8, 1935 – nearly two years to the day after that first sitdown – Federal Labor Union 19008 was rechartered as AFL-UAW Local 72.
The next year, Local 72 sent 22 delegates to South Bend, Indiana, for the UAW’s second convention. There the AFL took the new union off probation, allowing delegates to elect their own officers. The delegates responded by installing Homer Martin as the first president of the United Auto Workers.
Helping the Jobless, Aiding the Members
Although members of Local 72 now had union protection, the Thirties remained difficult for them. The auto industry was mired in a slowdown caused by the Great Depression. Jack Beni, who would later become Local 72 president, recalled working only three or four months a year and being laid off for the remainder. In the winter of 1937-’38, Nash ran the plant on an 18-hour week. As a speaker pointed out at a local membership meeting in February 1938, under that schedule workers earned less on the job than they would have if they had received regular unemployment compensation. The union formed an Unemployment Committee to counsel members on “how to get prompt attention when applying for relief or unem­ployment compensation.” The committee teamed up with other unions to help jobless people obtain adequate relief and other help.
Local 72 also deepened its connections with its members, becoming a membership center on and off the job. Routinely, 1,000 to 1,200 of the union’s more than 3,000 members attended membership meetings, held twice each month at the Moose Hall before moving first to the IA Hall and later the Union Club. Local 72 members marched in a group in Kenosha’s annual Labor Day parade; in 1938, the members voted to impose a $1 fine on anyone not marching. The Kenosha Labor reported that in that 1938 parade, Local 72 members marched “seven abreast in a line stretching one half mile long.”
The union sponsored teams and clubs. A Local 72 baseball team formed in 1936 and soon showed itself among the area’s best, playing other industrial teams such as Simmons and the Ke-Nash-a Club 9 at the Nash Stadium, located at the corner of 52nd Street and 30th Avenue – today the location of Building 40 at the Kenosha Engine complex. The local sponsored a bowling team. It organized summer union picnics and winter Children’s Christmas parties. It sponsored frequent classes for members on topics ranging from effective speaking to parliamentary procedure. Local 72 stepped up its commitment to education in 1937 when it began sending students to the University of Wisconsin-School for Workers in Madison.
Community Solidarity
The young union local soon established a reputation for generosity and for union solidarity. In May 1934, not long after their own seven-week strike, Local 72 members approved a donation to sitdown strikers at the Autolite plant in Toledo. Two years later the local’s members raised $2,200 to help the UAW in its national campaign to organize General Motors. Their generosity helped other struggles; in 1937, Local 72 donated $1,000 to strikers at J.I. Case in Racine and another $1,164 to Kenosha’s popular “dime store girls” – employees at the city’s discount retail “Five and 10” stores who had struck for union recognition. In May 1938, the UAW’s international executive board honored Local 72, declaring that 100 percent of the members had taken part in a fund drive to help union organizing at Ford Motor Co.
In raising money for other unions’ struggles, Local 72 members were acting out of both generosity and self-interest. They knew that as long as the rest of the auto industry was non-union, that would limit how much they could improve their own wages and working conditions. Management at Nash routinely capitalized on that fact. With only 2 percent of the auto market, management argued, Nash could not afford to raise wages or benefits while the industry giants Ford and GM did not even have unions. Thus, when General Motors in February 1937 agreed to recognize the UAW after a 44-day sitdown strike in Flint, Michigan, the news was especially important to members of Local 72.
A Time of Testing
In 1936 Nash merged with Kelvinator to form the Nash ­Kelvinator Company. The merger troubled Local 72 members, who worried about the Kenosha plant’s future, and Charles Nash stoked those fears. “"We have no desire to see our plants moved out of Wisconsin,” said Nash, in remarks reported in the Kenosha Labor on October 23, 1936. “Of course, if conditions in Wisconsin make it impossible to compete with conditions in Michigan, that is another question.”
Yet those concerns did not lead the local to buckle under. The Kenosha plant had quickly built a reputation as a 100 percent union shop, and Local 72 enjoyed considerable power on behalf of its members. Even so, much was done informally. Dues were not even deducted automatically from paychecks. The union and management operated without a written contract until 1939. Instead, plant conditions were governed by a system of past practices.
In 1937, a new personnel director at Nash, Harry Beutlich, arrived, determined to rein in the union and put a stop to past practices that the company disliked. One such practice was the right of a union representative to take time off his plant job in order to fulfill his duties helping other members. Buetlich sought to erase that right unilaterally. First he told department supervisors that chief stewards no longer could leave their jobs on union business. When Paul Russo, the final assembly chief steward, left his work station to take up a collection for a union member whose house had burned down, the company fired him. The rest of the assembly department quickly fought back, sitting down and demanding Russo’s reinstatement. Company management refused, and the struggle escalated. First the Kenosha plant walked out; soon locals in Racine and Milwaukee joined them. “For three days not a wheel turned in the Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha plants,” Russo would later recall. The company relented, reinstating Russo and also reinstating the right of stewards to leave their work stations to represent their fellow union members.
Finally, in 1938, workers felt the full impact of the Nash-Kelvinator merger. Instead of closing the Kenosha plant, however, the company closed the Racine plant. In response, Local 72 members stood up for union principles by agreeing to a proposal from the UAW International: Racine and Kenosha workers would be put on an integrated seniority list, and Racine union members would be allowed to “bump” into the Kenosha plant. Working together, representatives of Local 72, the Racine local, and Nash-Kelvinator management reviewed all seniority dates to make sure that the agreement was carried out.
Struggles Escalate
Local 72’s 1939 elections contrasted sharply with the relatively quiet local races of the past. Across the American labor movement, the old-line American Federation of Labor found itself challenged from the inside by a newly formed National Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). The CIO sought to organize plants and industries as a whole instead of using the AFL’s traditional model of organizing by individual crafts. The same conflict was played out in individual union locals, and Local 72 was no exception. In a hotly contested election, pro-CIO candidates won out: George Nordstrom was elected president and Jess Nichols vice president. Paul Russo succeeded Nordstrom as recording secretary.
Conflict rose with management as well. Nash-Kelvinator’s determination to curb the union’s power only grew. At a meeting in May between the Local 72 Executive Board, Harry Beutlich shook his finger at his adversaries, the Kenosha Labor reported: “We are going to take back the property of Nash-­Kelvinator Corporation. You fellows have run it long enough.”
Once again Beutlich sought to rewrite the contract with his own pen. He issued orders blocking executive board members and stewards from leaving their jobs to handle grievances. His office reclassified jobs throughout the plant, cutting wages. It was clear to Local 72 members that the days of an unwritten contract would have to end.
The members quickly authorized the board to declare a “Labor Holiday” if needed and to begin negotiating a written contract. For five weeks, the board and management met, but negotiations stalled. On September 20, the executive board cut off overtime. On October 1, Local 72 went on strike.
As many as 3,000 pickets swarmed the plant gates at times, shutting down operations under the supervision of “Strike General” Bill Kult. After a three-week walkout, Nash-Kelvinator gave in, signing a contract that Paul Russo would later describe as “one of the best ever signed in the automobile industry.” Indeed, the document – covering two sides of a 10-inch by 17-inch sheet of paper – represented a major milestone for Local 72. For the first time, the union was recognized in writing as the exclusive bargaining agent for plant workers. The agreement established a firm grievance procedure and strengthened seniority rights for layoff and recall. It established that workers called in to work would be paid a minimum of one and a half hours.
Nash-Kelvinator had agreed to all those and other terms after just two weeks on strike. The union held out for another demand, however: a provision to distribute overtime equally to all workers who wanted it – ending once and for all the practice of giving overtime only to the foremen’s favored workers or withholding it from union supporters and activists. It took a third week off the job before Nash-Kelvinator management relented and agreed to the provision.
Changing the Guard
Local 72’s leadership was maturing. At the annual UAW convention in August 1940, George Nordstrom, the local’s bright, 28-year-old president, was elected Director of the international union’s Region 4, covering Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. As a regional director he also was automatically elevated to the International Executive Board, where he served under the second president of the UAW, R.J. Thomas. Nordstrom was the first Local 72 member to rise that high in the union.
In his two years as Region 4 director, Nordstrom spearheaded impressive growth. He organized plants in Chicago and elsewhere into the UAW and saw the Region 4 membership grow from 19,000 to 125,000. He brought experienced and committed Local 72 members, including Art Larsen, Jess Nichols, and Paul Russo, in to join or assist the International’s staff.
Paul Russo, meanwhile, was elected to succeed Nordstrom, and in 1940 led the union in settling a new contract without a strike. That agreement provided the first paid vacation ever: a week off with pay for anyone with more than two years’ seniority. It also gave workers the right for the first time to transfer to other departments. The next year, Russo and Bill Kult, recording secretary, and their slate were reelected without opposition. In yet another sign that the union was establishing itself in the community, Local 72 bought a building at 2717-60th St. – its first permanent headquarters.
In 1942, Russo resigned to become Assistant Director of Region 4, reporting to George Nordstrom. In an organizing blitz early the next year, the union won all 14 of the representations elections it sought in the Chicago area, and the UAW’s membership rolls grew by tens of thousands.
Recording Secretary W.G. “Bill” Kult succeeded Russo as president of Local 72 and presided over the union’s 10th anniversary celebration in 1943. UAW President R.J. Thomas spoke, calling Local 72 one of the strongest in the entire UAW. He recalled as well his own days as a welder in an unorganized Detroit auto plant, making 43 cents an hour, at the very time the union was forming in Kenosha. There was another speaker at that ceremony, a young UAW Vice President. His name was Walter Reuther.
The Union goes to War
The approach of World War II led the US government to order cutbacks in auto production. Raw materials needed to be conserved for plants producing military supplies. Just a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and just before Christmas, the cutbacks led Nash-Kelvinator to lay off 1,000 employees.
Local 72 members wanted the company to seek defense work, but Nash-Kelvinator management showed little interest. Troubled by that attitude, the union threatened “economic pressure” if the company didn’t more aggressively pursue defense contracts. Union leaders didn’t stop there, though. Taking matters in their own hands, they wrote to President Roosevelt, warning that the workforce would be cut in half and the war effort would suffer “if Nash does not drop their business as usual posture and pursue defense work.” After Local 72 teamed up with the CIO and applied pressure in Washington, D.C., the US Navy ultimately awarded Nash a contract to build aircraft engines.
Members of Local 72 joined a growing national effort to meet the nation’s needs during World War II. Union members agreed to forgo vacations and accept cash bonuses instead so that production levels would remain high. They accepted a standard workweek of 48 hours, signed on to a no-strike pledge that the national CIO made during the war years, and agreed to operate on Labor Day “to produce for the continued attack on the Axis.” That year, noted the Kenosha Labor, the distinctive blue and gold caps worn by Local 72 members were missing from the Labor Day parade. Union members helped in other ways. Some 1,000 union members gave blood in a Red Cross blood drive in 1943. And by the end of 1944, the union had bought $50,000 worth of War Bonds.
They also saw their own cause advance. In 1943, all jobs were paid on hourly rates; the hated piece-rate system was abolished. In the years to come, the local would strenuously resist all attempts to bring it back.
Members’ participation in the union surged. In June 1944, 2,000 members of Local 72 jammed two floors of the Union Club, where CIO Leader Leo Kryzycki urged them to vote to reelect President Roosevelt. For members, the union was frequently the center of off-hours social life, and Friday night membership meetings typically kicked off an evening’s entertainment. Typical of these times was a night in August 1944, when a meeting was adjourned early and the 1,000 members attending marched together to the Lakefront Stadium to watch the Local 72 baseball team take on the Great Lakes Bluejackets.
The war years also saw a surge in women workers in the plant, and the beginning of tremendous changes in their roles. Before the war, a smattering of women worked in “female jobs” that paid 10 cents an hour less than “male jobs” under the 1940 contract. The agreement’s Article 7, Section 10, included as well the following provision: “No married woman shall be hired who has visible means of support.” Single women hired after February 12, 1937, were to be laid off within 30 days after getting married.
Though shocking today, such discrimination against women was in keeping with the social standards of the day. For a time, however, the war opened up some opportunities for women. In 1943, the union elected Janet Paulsen to the Constitution and By-Laws Committee, part of the Executive Board. Two years later, Alice Canfield was elected Financial Secretary, and on March 29, 1945, she became the first woman in the union’s 12-year history to chair a membership meeting. Her performance later was praised as “cool and efficient” by a member who spoke to the Kenosha Labor.
The shortage of manpower continued to strain the company – so much so that in 1944 Nash and Local 72 agreed to set aside the contract, hiring married women even though they had “visible means of support.” They were treated differently, however. Married women hired at that time only had seniority in their own departments, and they were the first laid off in a cutback. They also were laid off as men returned from military service and resumed their old jobs in the plant.
The union’s 1947 contract marked a partial advance and a partial retreat for the rights of women at work. It reaffirmed the practice of hiring men in preference to women. But it also protected women’s seniority rights, and for the first time guaranteed equal pay for equal work regardless of sex. In 1951, the union contract’s non-discrimination clause was expanded to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex, not just race. Grace Starks led other Local 72 women in putting pressure on the union to force Nash to live up to that agreement.
Peacetime Progress
With the end of World War II, Local 72 resumed its more traditional role, fighting for better conditions for its members. An early victory was improved vacations. Workers with five years or fewer on the job earned 48 hours of paid vacation time a year. Workers with more than five years were granted 96 hours of paid vacation. A brief strike in 1945 won the union a raise of 12 cents an hour for maintenance workers.
Although World War II had tempered the union’s posture in dealing with management, members vividly recalled the days before the union, and they were determined not to relive them. When a few employees sought permission at a December 1944 membership meeting to collect funds for a Christmas present for their foreman, Vice President George Molinaro firmly turned them down.
Times had changed, he told the members: “A request like this recalls the old basket brigade of 10 years ago before the union was formed. Those were the days when you had to bring a gallon of wine, a goose, a turkey or a quart of whiskey to your boss in order to hold your job. Those days are gone forever.” His remark drew warm applause.
The union’s leadership continued to turn over, while still remaining in the hands of the original generation of founders. Bill Kult declined to run for president in 1944 and was succeeded by Mike Maxin, elected in 1944. Joe Lourigan followed Maxin in 1945 and ’46, and Richard Lindgren in 1947 and ’48. All three men were typical of the skilled leadership the union fostered, and Lourigan and Lindren went on to hold elective offices in the community later in their careers.
Local 72 members did not turn inward during these days. When other unions needed help, Local 72 members answered. At Allis Chalmers in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, workers had been on strike for eight months. Jess Nichols, a Local 72 member now serving as a UAW International representative, asked his home local for help with a mass picket at the Allis Chalmers plant. On the day of the demonstration, at the union’s request, the Nash plant shut down at 11 a.m. Five thousand Local 72 members marched from the factory to Lakefront Stadium, where they rallied in support of the strike. More than 1,500 of their number then rode in buses and private cars up to West Allis to join thousands of other local unionists in the demonstration at Allis Chalmers. Four Local 72 members were arrested in the picketing; the local later reimbursed them a day’s pay for the time they spent in the Milwaukee County Jail.
In negotiations in 1947, Local 72 coordinated bargaining with Local 75 in Milwaukee and Local 206 at Kelvinator’s Grand Rapids plant. The agreement won Local 72 members six paid holidays. A new local contract later that same year, negotiated under President Richard Lindgren and International Representative Paul Russo, gave Local 72 the first dues checkoff in its history. Call-in pay was doubled to three hours (it had been 90 minutes), and employees for the first time won the right to shift preference. Finally, the contract guaranteed in writing that the union could have one steward for every 25 workers – superior to any representation system in effect at any of the UAW-represented Big Three automakers. Paul Russo would later rightfully praise the 1947 contract as “the best agreement cover to cover in the in­dustry.”
Subsequent contracts in the 1940s improved vacation schedules, giving Nash-Kelvinator workers more paid time off than GM workers. When the 1948 agreement was ratified, Local 72 members voted to require all eligible employees to take their allotted vacations; exceptions were made only for special hardship cases, such as employees who had been sick for 30 or more consecutive days, and only if their requests to forgo vacation time was approved by the union’s Vacation Excuse Committee.
When a new director at Region 4 of the UAW was elected in 1947, Jess Nichols left the International staff, returning to Local 72. He was elected president of the local in 1949, serving for one year, then returned to the International staff. A few years later, he died in an auto accident.
Facing Up to Discrimination
Under UAW President R.J. Thomas, the union took a strong stand against racial discrimination. Back in 1943, Thomas moved the UAW convention from St. Louis to Buffalo because there were no integrated restaurants and hotels in St. Louis. Local 72 sought to safeguard the rights of minorities with a Fair Employment Practices Committee that operated as early as 1946. In the 1947 contract, the union demanded and won a clause that forbade Nash from discriminating against workers due to race, religion, national origin, or political affiliation.
It was an era when African Americans were migrating from the South into the industrial cities of the North and the Midwest, and Kenosha and Nash-Kelvinator was no exception. Large numbers of black workers were hired by the company and initiated into Local 72 during these years. Almost all of them were assigned to work in the foundry on 60th Street. Not until the late 1950s, when the foundry closed, did blacks bump into the rest of the plant.
New Benefits: Pensions and Health Care
The year 1950 was a milestone for Local 72 members: For the first time, their union won pension and health and life insurance plans. The UAW had paved the way, obtaining pensions for members at GM and Ford; shortly thereafter, Nash-Kelvinator agreed to provide its workers with a pension plan as well. Members ratified the special agreement on pensions and insurance, negotiated under President Mike Maxin in March 1950, by a vote of 2,700 to 100. On July 6 of that year, 13 members of Local 72 became the first to retire under the new pension plan.
In addition to the pension plan, the agreement provided a voluntary insurance plan with the company and employees both contributing to pay for coverage. With employees contributing on average 61 cents a week, the company agreed to provide a weekly Accident and Sickness Benefit of $28.80 and life insurance benefits of $3,200.
The same contract raised average wages to $1.73 an hour, and included a Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA, clause. The COLA clause provoked suspicion that it might actually cut wages if inflation fell. Indeed, at times during the 1950s, the absence of inflation and the COLA clause combined to subtract pennies from the hourly rate.
Local 72 became a springboard to larger community service for many of its leaders. Former President Richard Lindgren went on to become Kenosha City Clerk. Former President Joe Lourigan and former Vice President George Molinaro won seats representing the first and second districts in the State Assembly, and Molinaro rose to become Speaker of the State House in 1959. In Madison, Molinaro and Lourigan fought ceaselessly to improve state Unemployment Compensation laws, first reducing the waiting period for benefits from two weeks to one, and later eliminating the waiting period altogether.
Once again the union’s members took on the cause of fellow workers far from home. When the United Auto Workers on April 5, 1954, launched a strike against Kohler Co. in Sheboygan, six Local 72 representatives joined the picket line. The walkout would become in the longest strike in UAW history, and Local 72 members repeatedly took part in picketing the plant and donated thousands of dollars to aid strikers and their families.
The American Motors Era Begins
In 1954, Nash-Kelvinator merged with the Hudson Company, creating the American Motors Corp. The newly created automaker quickly opened talks for a new contract, and that September presented Local 72 with 119 pages of proposed changes, virtually all of them seeking to take away hard-won benefits. Local 72 resisted the givebacks and won improvements for its members instead. In January 1955, the union and AMC ratified a new contract that for the first time made union membership a mandatory condition of employment in the plant. Support was overwhelming, with 98 percent of the members favoring the clause. The provision gave the new Local 72 president, Jack Beni, the distinction of presiding over the first mandatory union shop in the history of Local 72.
As they had more than a decade before after the Nash-Kelvinator merger, members of Local 72 sacrificed some of their own self-interest in the name of principle for wider seniority rights. A 1955 special agreement gave full seniority rights to all Hudson workers who were transferred to Kenosha after their Detroit plant closed. Under the presidency of Ray Neu, the local also negotiated an agreement that granted the 3,000 former Hudson workers pensions at the expense of American Motors. To fund that clause in the contact, Local 72 members accepted a one-year delay in the new Supplemental Unemployment Benefits program – special pay for laid-off workers, which the union had won from the Big Three automakers in talks that year.
Advancing the Struggle for Civil Rights
In the early 1950s Walter Vaughn became the first black member of the Local 72 executive board, and his election signaled a new era of fuller participation for the local’s African American members. African American members – and later other minority-group employees – rose to positions of leadership as stewards, chief stewards, committee members and executive board members in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Among them were Vaughn, J.T. White, James Robenson, Willie Foxie, Frank Pope, Jack Cole, and Emil Garcia.
Local 72 joined the national civil rights revolution as well. Members meeting on September 12, 1957, went on record in vigorous support of racial integration as federal troops in Little Rock, Arkansas, enforced court orders to open whites-only schools to black children. The local’s Fair Employment Practices Committee passed petitions in 1959 around to the local’s 10,000 members, calling on President Eisenhower to oppose public school segregation. In 1960, members supported the FEPC’s three-point program to advance civil rights and oppose racial injustice. Among the provisions was one establishing a committee of three to meet with the manager of the Kenosha Woolworth’s store to express disapproval of the department store chain’s segregated Southern stores, and demanding the manager convey their stand to the company’s national headquarters. In 1965, Local 72 members joined 250 of their fellow Kenosha residents marching in support of black voting rights in the South.
At the same time, women in Local 72 worked to gain more respect as well. By 1956, their numbers in the local had reached the thousands, and the union’s Education Committee established a Women’s Institute, with speakers on unionism and labor history. In 1958, the union at last won the elimination of the long-standing clause that discriminated against single and married women for seniority.
These were heady times that saw the union continue to gain new ground. After a seven-day strike in 1957, the union won the firmly established right for members to have a steward present when managers notified them of overtime or a layoff. Leadership shifted; Jack Beni returned to the Local 72 presidency in 1957 and led the union in contract talks the next year, which won the union a three-year agreement without a strike. Wages for the 8,300 working members rose to $2.47 an hour, and the local’s 25th anniversary observance that year drew 8,000 members and their families.
In 1960, AMC took over a plant once owned by the Simmons mattress company on the Lake Michigan Shoreline east of Downtown Kenosha. Local 72 successfully persuaded AMC management to give the former Simmons employees the first chance at new jobs. The expansion raised the union’s active membership to 14,300 in November 1960 – an all-time high for the local that made it it the largest local in the UAW representing a single workplace.
Local 72 members and leaders also stayed active in politics, working for the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. Jack Milward and T.L. Russo attended the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles as Kennedy delegates that summer, and the local played an active role in helping Kennedy sweep Kenosha County in the November general election.
The largest union local in the UAW built the largest union hall in the state of Wisconsin that year as well – a sprawling brick building on Washington Road, northwest of Downtown Kenosha. Built under the oversight of Trustees T.L. Russo, Ray Neu, and Art Dimeo, the hall was dedicated on April 15, 1961, in a ceremony to which the public was invited. The hall has since established a legacy as an important Kenosha center for community events.
An Industry Pattern, a National Tragedy
In a tight election in 1961 that was forced to a runoff vote, Jack Beni defeated T.L. Russo and assumed the presidency of Local 72 once again. That same year, the UAW chose AMC to set the pattern for auto industry contract talks – the company with which the union negotiated first that year, with the resulting terms then to be imposed on the rest of the auto industry employers. The contract included controversial provisions, most notably a form of profit sharing called “Progress Sharing.” Ratification required a second vote, with a record turnout of nearly 10,000 Local 72 members. Among the many gains the local achieved in the new contract was, for the first time, a provision for the company to cover the entire cost of hospital and surgical insurance.
In 1963, a woman was elected to the executive board for the first time since the days of Alice Paulsen and Janet Canfield nearly 20 years before. Members elected Maggie Smith financial secretary that year. T.L. Russo, who was the brother of union pioneer Paul Russo and who had lost the union election two years before, was elected president.
In November 1963, the nation’s energetic young president, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas. Local 72 members who had worked so hard for his election just three years before were shocked and saddened. They sent President Russo to his funeral in Washington, D.C., to pay the local’s last respects.
Back home in Kenosha, new struggles ensued. In the early 1960s, AMC industrial engineers began automating and retiming jobs. New machinery and new production processes slashed jobs throughout the plant, especially in the motor division. In 1962, Local 72 established an Automation Committee to study the effects of those developments.
The union also battled AMC management over the issue of job standards. “Swarms of time study men have descended on some departments to check on standards that have been in existence a long time,” warned President Russo in a January 1964 report to the members. That year’s contract improved standards language to a degree, but the hated industrial engineers continued to tighten job standards.
The members fought back at the union ballot box. Thousands of members who had been hired in 1958 and 1959 chafed under the AMC Industrial Engineering Department. They took their frustration out during union local elections, electing almost an entirely new Executive Board in 1965. Dick Thiel, a 30-year-old newcomer to Local 72 politics, defeated incumbent T.L. Russo in an upset election; Rudy Kuzel, who would later serve as president of the local, made his first run for local office and was elected a trustee. On the same day as that election, workers in the plant conducted a sit-down strike targeting industrial engineering.
Less than two months after the election, a 93-percent majority of Local 72 members voted to authorize the new Executive Board to call a strike over unresolved grievances. Among the policies that prompted the vote was one requiring workers on sick leave to submit weekly forms; AMC had fired many workers who had by mistake failed to submit the forms on time. The three-week strike that followed yielded a new sick leave policy that abolished the weekly forms.
In 1967 Dick Thiel declined to seek a new term, and Ralph Daum, a former Press Room chief steward, was elected, taking office July 1 and serving for 11 years until his defeat in 1978 by Gene Sylvester. 
On April 4, 1968, a sniper’s bullet cut down the Civil Rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to show solidarity with striking city employees. The news saddened members of Local 72, who had long been committed to the values of equal rights, and African American members of the local left work in honor of Dr. King. Their departure shut the plant down for the day. Many Local 72 members took part in a silent march from the Second Baptist Church to the Kenosha Municipal Building for a memorial service. The local’s president, Daum, and the head of its Fair Employment Practices Committee, Harold Mack, attended Dr. King’s funeral services in Atlanta.
These years also saw Local 72 members and their families fight and die in the Vietnam War. In 1968, UAW President Walter Reuther took a stand challenging the US government’s prosecution of the war; he called for a ceasefire and an immediate end to the bombing of North Vietnam in order to bring peace both to the war-torn Asian nation and to an America divided by opposition to the war and by civil strife. Over the course of the war, many Local 72 members served in Vietnam and then returned to rejoin the union. Many of those Vietnam veterans have gone on to serve the union in various elected and appointed capacities.
In the fall of 1969, AMC management brought to the bargaining table a series of demands to take away hard-won gains of the past. Unable to forge an agreement, Local 72 went on strike. In the strike’s first week, AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep for $85 million, prompting bitter reaction by union members in light of the company’s takeaway demands. By the end of the 26-day walkout – only the 1939 strike was longer – the union had successfully beaten back the AMC concession demands and made solid gains for the members, including a provision making overtime completely voluntary. In less rancorous negotiations the next year, Pat Greathouse of the UAW International helped Local 72 negotiate the auto industry’s first Joint Alcohol and Drug program. The program recognized alcohol and drug addiction as a disease and pledged joint action by the company and union to offer treatment to those willing to accept it.
Another strike followed in 1974, when President Daum led a Local 72 walkout aimed at keeping the working agreement intact. The new contract ending the strike two weeks later was ratified with no major changes.
In 1976, AMC moved manufacturing of its Gremlin model from its Milwaukee plant back to Kenosha. The transfer brought 250 members of UAW Local 75 into the Kenosha plant, with their seniority rights intact. The move was the first step in the eventual shutdown of auto production in Milwaukee; the phasing out of the Matador car model in 1978 was the next.
A Change in Leadership
In 1978, Recording Secretary Gene Sylvester defeated Ralph Daum for the presidency of Local 72. Sylvester came into office at a time of growing difficulty for industrial workers, the auto industry, and the local. When he took office, the local was under administrative supervision of the UAW International Union. Despite such challenges, the first contract negotiated under Sylvester’s presidency brought the union’s members a much improved vacation agreement. In addition to two full contracts, the Sylvester-led board also negotiated supplemental agreements to enhance job security.
One of the key innovations negotiated in these years was the creation of full-time representative to administer Unemployment Compensation/Workers Compensation programs and the Alcohol and Drug Program. Rudy Kuzel was appointed as the first Alcohol and Drug rep in 1981. The program became known for its firm but fair treat­ment of members with chemical dependency problems. Meanwhile, Jack Ward, appointed as the UC and Workers Comp representative, helped members cut through red tape to obtain benefits to which they were entitled. In a similar vein, the local negotiated in 1984 its first full-time representatives for insurance and for pension matters; Jack Cole became the local’s first full-time insurance rep, and Ken Johnson the first pension rep that year.
Local 72 once again showed its commitment to the struggle of black Americans for civil rights when the union in 1980 became the first local in the auto industry to negotiate a paid day off in honor of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Since 1981, Local 72 has sponsored an annual program honoring Dr. King, with local and national speakers.
Alliance with Renault
As the 1970s became the 1980s, employment at AMC plummeted as the company’s aging product line fell far out of favor with consumers. Rescuing AMC from almost certain collapse, Renault, an automaker owned by the French government, bought 46 percent of the company. The Renault /American Motors partnership led to the first joint-venture production of autos in America. Local 72 negotiated a special agreement to bring the Renault work into the plant, primarily minor changes in language governing manpower. Those changes were far more modest than the demands that future joint ventures would make on the UAW at other locations.
Even as the merger was taking effect, however, AMC’s market share continued to suffer, and in the winter of 1982, 4,500 Local 72 members were laid off indefinitely. Local 72 members blamed both company management and the economic and social policies of the Reagan Administration. In October 1981 a busload of Local 72 members joined 500,000 unionists who descended on Washington, D.C., to protest the hardships that working men and women suffered under Reagan’s policies.
The Renault merger presented Local 72 with new challenges. After the merger, Local 72 established a working relationship with the French unions at Renault in order to gain a better understanding of the AMC / Renault partnership, and representatives of Local 72 and the French unions conducted several exchange visits.
In April of 1982 the AMC / Renault partnership bore fruit as Local 72 members began building the French-designed Renault Alliance in Kenosha. Their fine workmanship helped the Alliance to win the Car of the Year Award for the 1983 model year. But sales of the Alliance and its derivative, the Encore, began to slump in mid-1984 as competition from overseas and the larger American automakers intensified.
Meanwhile in the 1980s, three Local 72 members won an important victory for the free speech rights of union members. Three foremen – who received financial backing from AMC – sued three Local 72 members, Jon Melrod, John Drew and Tod Ohnstad, who published a plant newsletter. A jury ended the multimillion-dollar libel suit, upholding the three editors and awarding no damages to the foremen.
In 1984, a longtime Local 72 leader, Rudy Kuzel, was elected president with no opposition, succeeding Gene Sylvester, who with Jack Cole joined the staff of UAW Region 10. That year’s election also was noteworthy for naming Sandy Rommel Board Member at Large, the local’s fourth female board member.
Chrysler – and Crisis
President Kuzel took office at one of the most difficult times in Local 72’s history. As of July 1, 1984, AMC’s Kenosha operations employed 2,500 people, with another 6,500 on layoff. Additionally, there were 12,500 retirees – a total of 21,500 men and women whose lives were directly tied to the plant. On average, every one of those people accounted for at least one family member, Kuzel recalled in a 2003 interview. “There were 43,000 people whose wages, insurance, and pensions were dependent on what Local 72 did.”
Indeed, things were so grim, Kuzel recalled, that AMC’s vice president of manufacturing at the time, George Maddox, privately warned him not to take the job of Local 72 president. Kuzel soon found out why.
At the time that Renault and AMC had negotiated their partnership, Kuzel said, AMC executives were not entirely candid with their new French allies about the specifics of Local 72’s contract. Faced with terms that were far more stringent than at other UAW plants owned by industry competitors Ford, GM, and Chrysler, Renault grew exasperated with AMC and with its American venture. The company issued a letter to Local 72 members vowing to close the plant.
With one steward for every 35 workiers, Local 72 had long enjoyed the lowest ratio of workers to stewards of any plant in the industry. The industry standard was far higher: 250 workers for each steward. The union’s voluntary overtime provision was another sticking point, unequalled in the industry.
“Renault tried to goad us into a strike,” Kuzel recalled – and had the company succeeded, the plant surely would have closed for good. Already, more than 4,000 members were on layoff because AMC had discontinued its own products and the Renault line’s sales were slow. Understanding those realities, Kuzel and his bargaining team made a painful decision: “We decided a job with a Big Three contract is better than no job at all,” Kuzel said. On July 12, 1985, Local 72 members ratified a new contract, sacrificing long-cherished contract provisions in the name of job security and a new lease on life for the Kenosha plant.
Because the contract now resembled those of a General Motors plant, for a few years the local was reorganized along the lines of a GM local, with primary authority for bargaining, handling grievances, administering contracts and administering joint programs falling to the shop chairman rather than the president. As a result, Rudy Kuzel in 1987 ran for and was elected shop chairman, while Ed Steagall was elected to the more administrative position of local president.
Less than a year later, Chrysler Corp., needing additional capacity for its M-body cars, contracted with AMC to have them built in Kenosha. Kuzel led Local 72 in negotiations for an agreement that was ratified June 27, 1986. The pact led to a $200 million investment in the Kenosha plant and the recall of thousands of laid-off workers.
Meanwhile, AMC and Local 72 entered a new round of talks, focusing on the possibility that AMC would build a new plant in Kenosha to assemble a new model of Jeep. Then Chrysler, which had been “living together” with AMC, suddenly proposed marriage. On March 9, 1987, Chrysler announced plans to buy the No. 4 automaker in a deal that put Chrysler back in the top 10 of Fortune magazine’s list of biggest corporations, the Fortune 500. The merger agreement abruptly ended the talks to build a new AMC plant in Kenosha.
Slightly more than two months later, in May 1987, Chrysler President Gerald Greenwald announced the company was moving production of its L-body cars – the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon subcompacts – to Kenosha, where assembly of the company’s M-body cars had been underway for several months. Greenwald forecast high-volume production of the vehicles over the coming three to five years and said no contract changes would be required, Kuzel recalled. The company invested another $200 million in the plant.
L-body production began on October 19, 1987, with two shifts and all laid-off members being called back to work. On the very same day, the bull market that had been roaring on Wall Street skidded to a halt. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 508 points – a 23-percent decline. Looking back, Kuzel said in a 2003 interview, that event likely set the stage for further bad news to follow.
On January 27, 1988, barely five months after closing the deal to buy AMC – and after assuring the community and the state that the plant’s future was secure – Chrysler dropped a bombshell that shocked plant workers and the community. Automobile assembly would cease in Kenosha by December of that year. More than 5,000 jobs would be lost.
The announcement flatly contradicted what everyone – union members, community citizens, even Republican state officials – knew the company had promised when it bought AMC. Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca was famously quoted as intending to keep operations in Kenosha for at least five years after the Chrysler-AMC merger. Wisconsin Attorney General Don Hanaway told the media the state should sue the automaker, according to a Chicago Tribune report; he cited a May 18, 1987, letter from Gov. Tommy Thompson to Chrysler Motors Chairman Gerald Greenwald that outlined terms of an agreement to continue building cars in Wisconsin for five years in return for state aid.
Some seemed to want to blame Local 72. The union, it was charged, had been too militant over the years, too unwilling to work with AMC managers or with Chrysler executives who succeeded them. Yet that was a raw distortion of the facts. Union officials had been frank in their criticism of American Motors management, but they had also been realistic, and had frequently agreed to contract changes management insisted upon to improve flexibility and cut costs, as the 1985 and 1986 negotiations had shown.
Lee Iacocca himself readily admitted that the decision to close the plant had nothing to do with the quality of the workforce or the union. “The work force is great, but unfortunately the plant is antiquated and very inefficient,” Iacocca wrote in a book Talking Straight, published just six months after the closing was announced.  
Fighting both for the future of its members and for that of the larger community in which they lived, the union responded with a calculated campaign on several fronts. Local members took their case to the public, picketing Chrysler executives at a meeting in Chicago. Local 72 leaders and members also looked to the political arena for help. Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson – who was adding left-behind, working-class Americans to his “Rainbow Coalition” of minorities and other politically disenfranchised groups – interrupted his campaign in Iowa to visit Kenosha and speak to thousands of workers and sympathizers at a 45-minute rally Local 72 organized in front of the plant on 52nd Avenue. He told workers that their fight was an extension of the battle for equality that African Americans in the Deep South fought three decades earlier. “In Selma it was a different battle cry: End political violence,” Jackson said. “Today in Kenosha we are taking this a step further [and saying] end corporate violence...” several local newspapers reported.
The Jackson campaign energized many in the union. It was in keeping with the historic ties between the UAW and the struggle for African American equality and the defiant spirit that was deeply entrenched in Local 72. Yet throughout the turmoil of 1988, as the closing day drew nearer and as the struggle to hold Chrysler accountable to its promises grew more pitched, the union continued to look out for its members’ interests in both the short term and the long term.
An important step during this period was Local 72’s determination to be admitted to the UAW’s Chrysler Council. Despite Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC, the local’s admission to the council of other Chrysler UAW locals was not a foregone conclusion. Chrysler management didn’t want Local 72 in, because it would strengthen the local’s hand in its negotiations with the company. Even some UAW locals already in the council weren’t enthusiastic about welcoming Local 72, because it would put a greater responsibility on them in the tough talks ahead over the Kenosha plant’s future.
Local 72 had an important ally, however: Marc Stepp, who chaired the UAW’s Chrysler Division. At Stepp’s urging, the council voted April 7, 1988, in Kansas City to admit Local 72. That was a watershed, Kuzel recalled in 2003: “If we hadn’t gotten into the Chrysler Council, we never would have been able to get the kind of benefits that we have.”
In late June, Local 72 and Chrysler agreed to terms for 5,500 workers facing layoff in December and 800 to 1,000 who would remain to build engines at the plant. Laid-off workers would receive insurance benefits for up to two years, depending on their seniority. Workers would be eligible for early retirement, and those laid off would have access to a job bank. Employees who had given up wage hikes from 1982 to 1985 in return for a profit-sharing agreement with AMC would be paid $8,000 to $10,000. Altogether, the package was valued at about $250 million – a figure that made the Kenosha plant closing the most expensive plant closing in the history of the auto industry, and a milestone in the recognition of the responsibility of corporations to workers and communities stranded by plant closings.
The union’s pressure on the company also led to an extension of the company’s operations in Kenosha, putting off the assembly plant closing until December 1988 instead of September as originally planned. With the union’s contract now in line with Chrysler agreements, primary authority for bargaining, grievances, contract administration, and joint programs once again fell to the local president rather than the shop chairman, and Kuzel in the 1990 election resumed his former title of president. All told, Kuzel served as the local’s principal officer and chaired its bargaining committee for a dozen years – from 1984 to 1996, longer than anyone else in the union’s history. 
While the union and its members exercised hard-won militancy, that did not keep them from reporting to work every day to build cars, demonstrating just what Iacocca had said about the excellence of the work force. Indeed, The Kenosha News reported that in the first seven months of 1988, the plant produced one of every four US-built Chrysler passenger cars – 149,000 vehicles. The volume was driven by soaring demand for Chrysler’s L-body Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon models. Kenosha’s production volume was nearly twice what the company’s Belvidere plant had produced in the same period the year before. The workers didn’t just build high volume, however – they produced high quality. On December 20, 1988, just a few days before the assembly plant closed, the L-body vehicles coming out of the plant were rated No. 1 and the M-body No. 3 in quality out of all vehicles in the Chrysler product line.
Union officials hoped that Gov. Thompson would follow through on his administration’s often-voiced threats to sue Chrysler. As late as July of 1988, the Republican governor hinted at plans to file the lawsuit. Thompson “said he will not hesitate to file a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Chrysler if the automaker will not make a deal with the state,” the Racine Journal-Times reported. The newspaper quoted the governor as saying the lawsuit had already been drafted and was being held for filing.
In the end, however, both the governor and local officials, citing fears that to sue Chrysler would alienate potential new employers from settling in the area, backed off of their lawsuit threats. It was a bitter disappointment for union leaders, but they pressed on determined to continue their struggle to make whatever workplace remained best serve the interests of their members.
Standing with the Union, Working with Management
In 1990 Local 72 participated in the first round of pattern bargaining with Chrysler since the AMC acquisition. Once again, the union stood up for its historic rights and won. The biggest challenge was to ensure that pension plans under Chrysler would achieve parity with the pensions that had been won from AMC over the years. The union won the day, and members roared their approval: Of those who cast ballots, 97.3 percent voted to ratify the new agreement, which ensured all Chrysler workers, including those in Kenosha, would have the same economic benefits and would not have to sacrifice past gains. “It feels good to be treated decently after all the bad things that have happened to Local 72 in the recent past,” noted John Drew in a Kenosha Labor column published November 16, 1990.
Meanwhile, the union and Chrysler’s local management were engaged in a fundamental change in the way they worked. Putting aside their disappointment and bitterness over the plant’s closing and the refusal of government officials to follow through on vows to sue Chrysler, Local 72’s leaders embarked on what would become perhaps the community’s most revolutionary change in labor relations.
Giving up none of their principles, which put the rights and needs of members first, the local found ways to work with Chrysler management as had never happened before, not even in the days of World War II. The vehicle for change has been a joint union-management drive called PQI – short for product quality improvement.
In the months after auto assembly ended in Kenosha, Local 72 President Rudy Kuzel saw that to ensure the long-term future of the plant, and with it the jobs of Local 72 members, the union and the company would have to find ways to harness the knowledge and experience that the union’s members gained on the job every day to improve productivity and product quality.
In the early 1980s, AMC and the union had attempted some joint efforts under the name of Partners in Progress, or PIP. As a joint attempt to improve product quality, Kuzel said, it was a first step, and recognized of the role and ability of union members to be a part of that process. PIP suffered, however, from a critical flaw, he said in 2003: “The company never wanted to relinquish any of their prerogatives.” Ideas and suggestions that arose from union members appeared to go nowhere.
Nearly a decade later, Kuzel believed it was time to try again. He exercised an assertiveness that calls to mind the days of World War II, when Local 72 leaders pushed Nash to pursue military contracts. This time, however, he faced the challenge of persuading his own members. With the plant manager, Ron Lightcap, participating, Kuzel called a town hall meeting in the plant. There he urged Local 72 members to take part in the Product Quality Improvement Partnership (PQI) – an initiative jointly negotiated by the UAW and Chrysler to improve the quality of Chrysler products.
“Rudy got up in front of the whole membership and said, ‘This is something we need to get involved with,’ ” Phil Anastasi, originally a skeptic of the program who later came to support it, said in a 2002 interview published in The Kenosha News. “The membership thought he was crazy.” To help allay members’ suspicions and build their support, the union insisted and plant management promised that PQI would not be used to eliminate jobs.
The corporation and the union established teams of union and management employees, assigned to focus on specific ways to improve the quality of the plant’s products. In a column for the Kenosha Labor in 1990, Local 72 Vice President John Drew praised PQI for going further than PIP had in giving worker groups a voice in quality improvement.
The effort won accolades from outside. In February 1992, the Kenosha Engine plant, as it was now called, was recognized as Manufacturer of the Year by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. In November 1993, the Wisconsin Labor-Management Council – created to promote labor-management cooperation in the state – visited the plant and recognized it as one of the state’s high-performance workplaces, where wages and product quality are high, employee rights are respected, and labor and management work together.
Employees appreciated the PQI program. “It gives the people ownership with their jobs,” Rosemary Stollings, a union member and PQI trainer for the plant, told The Kenosha News in 2002. “It gives them pride in their work, lets them have a voice in what they’re doing. It gives them a chance if there’s a problem to get it corrected, or if they see an improvement to be made, to get it done.”
Greg Stark, a UAW facilitator for PQI, said PQI recognized that the plant’s hundreds of hourly workers were “the experts when it comes to do their jobs.” He added: “When something’s wrong, they’re the first to know. And nine times out of 10, they know what to do about it.”
As just one indicator of the effectiveness of PQI, Local 72 President John Drew reported in November 2002 that warranty costs for engines built at the Kenosha plant had dropped by 45 percent for the 2002 model year compared with the 2001 model year.
Over the years, company officials acknowledged as well in repeated newspaper interviews the benefits of the PQI program for productivity and product quality. Phil Anastasi, vice president of Local 72 since 1999, admitted he was once wary that PQI might lead to the elimination of jobs. His fears relieved by the program’s successful history, he said he firmly supported PQI and credited the union’s involvement with keeping the program from being a top-down system with no benefits for the workers. “The better your quality level is, the more work your plant is going to get,” he said.
Because of the stellar productivity and quality at the Kenosha plant, Chrysler chose it for the production of 2.7 liter engines to power several of the company’s automobile product lines. The decision led to a plant expansion in 1997 and an increase in the plant’s work force. In 2002, the plant expanded again to accommodate a new engine, the 3.5 liter model. Bringing these products to the plant has been vital for its survival and to the preservation of UAW jobs, because by 2003 the original mainstay of the plant, the 4.0 liter engine, was nearing the end of its production life span.
A Political Force
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s and into the early 20th century, Local 72 remained a politically active and vibrant organization, endorsing and working for the election of political leaders who would advance the rights and interests of workers in local, state, and national offices. National political candidates visited the local and spoke to its members: Vice President Walter Mondale, stumping for the reelection of President Jimmy Carter in 1980; Geraldine Ferraro, who as Presidential candidate Mondale’s running mate in 1984 became the first woman to join a national presidential ticket; and Jesse Jackson’s visit in 1988, when he made his impassioned speech on behalf of the 5,500 soon-to-be-laid-off plant employees. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore visited the union while campaigning on behalf of a local Democratic Congressional candidate, and two years later, Joseph Lieberman, who ran on Gore’s presidential ticket, appeared at a major rally at Local 72 just a few days before the historic 2000 vote. Although Gore went on to win the popular vote nationally, contested results in Florida led to a court case in which the US Supreme Court blocked recounting and declared that Florida’s Electoral College votes should go to Bush, making him the winner.
Other Democratic political leaders routinely courted the support of Local 72, with Gov. Jim Doyle, elected in 2002, and Sen. Russ Feingold both making frequent visits. And no wonder: Local 72 activists were well known for their tireless work to get out the vote, making good use of a provision in the UAW’s national contract that made election day a paid holiday.
Changing Roles, Changing Rules
While the job of the union’s leaders remained first and foremost to represent the interests of members, the ways in which they did so continued to evolve. For one thing, it became more important than ever to watch the machinations of Wall Street and of the auto industry and the forces at work in it. So it was that vice president John Drew in 1990 told members to watch out for the actions of a corporate raider, Kirk Kerkorian, who bought nearly 10 percent of Chrysler’s stock. “Raiders like Kerkorian buy into companies so they can divide them up, sell off the parts, and make a quick killing,” Drew noted in his Kenosha Labor column of December 21, 1990. The UAW’s master agreement, he asserted, should – and would – thwart such efforts should Kerkorian gain control of the company, and indeed Kerkorian’s threat to the company diminished in time.
In 1996, President Rudy Kuzel retired, having presided over the union variously as president or shop chairman through the tumultuous 1980s and into an era of new cooperation in the 1990s. He was replaced by John Drew. Drew and many of his fellow board members were hired in the early 1970s, at the height of the AMC era.
Two years into Drew’s first term, and 10 years after the Chrysler-AMC merger that rocked the Kenosha work force, Chrysler became the first American car company to be owned by a foreign automobile producer. German’s DaimlerBenz merged with Chrysler to form the DaimlerChrysler Corporation, which by 2001 was a $56.1 billion behemoth.
The merger has brought both challenges and benefits to the workers of Kenosha: the expansion of engine-building operations, but also heightened concerns about investment in non-union facilities owned by the parent company.
The leaders of Local 72 continue to make their mark in the larger union. In 1993, Rudy Kuzel was named to the UAW’s national Chrysler bargaining team, representing the union’s Engine and Powertrain plants. In 1996 and again in 1999, Curt Wilson, shop chairman, represented skilled trades workers in national auto talks with Chrysler. Wilson brought to the national table impressive credentials. First elected to the Local 72 bargaining committee in 1975, he was still serving nearly three decades later. When the local fell under the national Chrysler agreement, that contract’s rules called for a separate shop committee member elected by the skilled trades. In 1990 Wilson became the first Local 72 skilled trades member to be elected to that seat, one that he continued to hold as of the union’s 70th anniversary. Wilson also was elected shop committee chairman in 1990 and maintained that position, where he was in charge of the second step of the grievance procedure and assisted the president in the union’s administration of joint programs. In April 1999, Lula Smith, Local 72 vice president, was appointed to the Region 4 staff of the UAW international, servicing Local 72 and other UAW locals in Southeastern Wisconsin.
As Local 72 observes its 70th birthday, the union and its members face continuing challenges.
With the launch of its latest product line, the 3.5 liter engine, the Kenosha Engine Plant implemented a lean production system designed to eliminate waste, improve quality and efficiency, and give workers more ownership of the production process. The system was jointly designed by Local 72 and plant management to enhance job security at the Kenosha plant and to compete with foreign-owned, American-based “transplants” that sprang up in the 1980s and ’90s.
 Job security has become an increasing source of concern, and in the auto industry layoffs, job reductions, and plant closings continue to haunt workers. Unlike their predecessors in the days before unionism, however, workers in Local 72 have a voice and can exercise power together to cushion the blow. Union-negotiated special retirement programs help older workers leave knowing they have a secure future, while enabling younger ones to stay and provide for themselves and their families. It is a sharp contrast to the days when older workers were simply burned up and cast off in favor of a younger, hungrier generation.
As in the 1930s, competition is high from manufacturers operating non-union plants. Unlike that era, those manufacturers are as likely to be overseas as in other parts of the US – yet they are as likely as not to have ties to unionized American automakers.
In August 2002, for instance, Local 72 leaders toured a DaimlerChrysler engine plant in Mexico, where they learned about engines made by workers paid $20 a day plus benefits. Engines are high quality, the work force is young, and absenteeism is about 1.7 percent. Given their pay rates, noted John Drew in a report to members, “workers in Mexico are not buying new cars and trucks.” Instead the collapse of trade barriers, because of agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, allows those products to be freely sold in the US.
Trade remains an issue that cuts to the heart of the security and the future of autoworkers and other manufacturing employees, in Kenosha and across the nation. Perhaps the single greatest such threat comes from China, where business interests continue to push for more open trading in a country where workers earn far less than a dollar an hour and lack the basic rights to form free unions or to strike for improved wages, benefits, and working conditions.
The auto industry remains in turmoil that had begun before the tragedy of September 11, 2001, but has been made worse by the world’s uncertainty since then.
The world is at once different and the same as that faced 70 years ago when 100 men sat down on the job in the Nash Motors assembly department to stand up for their rights and dignity as working people. As John Drew said not long after his election to a third term as president in 2002, the success of the union, its leaders, and its members depend on understanding how the world is operating.
“I've always tried to understand the larger forces at work. I think that helps to try to figure out how you approach doing the job of a union leader,” Drew told a Kenosha News interviewer. “I see the job of a union leader is to accomplish as much as you can for your membership. How you go about doing that certainly has to change and fit in with the situation that you're facing. So you do different things at different times.”
At the same time, a union local and its members who had more than once been written off by outsiders repeatedly demonstrated their mettle. Since the mid-1980s, and through plant closings and threats of closings, Local 72 prevailed, leading to a total $1.7 billion investment in Kenosha’s operations by Chrysler and then DaimlerChrysler, retired Local 72 President Rudy Kuzel said in 2003.
Kuzel emphasized, though, that the union’s success isn’t due only to the local’s leaders. The ultimate credit goes to the union’s members – men and women who stood up for their jobs, but who also worked hard to do those jobs well. Right up to the shutdown of auto assembly in 1988, Local 72 members built cars to higher quality standards than those same cars had been built elsewhere. “The membership earned respect for the way they conducted themselves,” said Kuzel. Once the plant was converted exclusively to building engines, he added, they continued to produce with the same high level of quality – thereby winning continued investment for new products in the plant.
“It’s almost obligatory that every UAW president says, ‘I’ve got the best membership in the union,’” Kuzel said. “My membership proved they’re the best.”
Kuzel recalled the words he heard at UAW convention several years ago from retired International President Doug Fraser. “You’ve got to keep that local in existence,” Fraser told him. “The UAW wouldn’t be the same without Local 72.”
Author’s Note
I first met leaders and members of United Auto Workers Local 72 in 1986, when I joined the staff of the Milwaukee Journal to cover labor and workplace issues. In my nine years in that job, and in the years since as I have worked as a freelance writer and editor, I have come to know and respect Rudy Kuzel, John Drew, and the rest of Local 72’s leaders along with the dedicated, hardworking members of this union as they struggled with the economic and political uncertainties that characterize America at the turn of the millennium.
Research for the first 50 years of this history of Local 72 was undertaken two decades ago by John Drew for a history of the local published in 1985. Research for the past 20 years relied heavily on Local 72 documents, newspaper clippings, my own recollection of the period verified by additional sources, and interviews, particularly with Rudy Kuzel, retired president of the local. I also relied on interview material collected in 2002 for a Kenosha News special section observing 100 years of automobile manufacturing in Kenosha.
To this onlooker, Local 72 and its members continue to shine as examples of the best qualities that have made the American Labor Movement a force benefiting the lives of working people and their families: a fierce dedication to principle and to the rights of the least powerful among us, and a work ethic that takes pride in craftsmanship and quality. I wish you solidarity, good fortune, and the will to prevail for your next 70 years and beyond.

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