Harley Davidson board to review union's OK of labor deal

Harley Davidson had warned it would move its two Wisconsin operations to other states if the workers rejected the contract. A move would have eliminated about 1,350 jobs.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
A Harley Davidson worker rolls up a poster he had on his motorcycle after voting at the Waukesha Exposition Center in Waukesha, Wi., on Sept. 13. Union workers ratified a seven-year labor contract.

Harley-Davidson Inc.'s three Wisconsin unions have agreed to a contract with steep concessions. Now it's up to the company to confirm it won't move its production out of the state.

Harley's board of directors was scheduled to review the voting results Tuesday from the unions, which all agreed to accept the new contract to save jobs.

The Milwaukee-based motorcycle company had warned it would move its two Wisconsin operations to other states if the workers rejected the contract. A move would have eliminated about 1,350 jobs.

Harley spokesman Bob Klein said the board's final decision was expected by late morning.

"As we've said all along, achieving ratified agreements is key to our long-term competitiveness and flexibility in Wisconsin," he said.

A number of the workers who voted Monday to approve the deal said they did so grudgingly, accepting Harley's ultimatum for the sake of saving jobs. Others voted against it because they said the terms were too harsh.

The contract freezes employees' pay, slashes hundreds of production jobs and assigns large volumes of work to part-time workers. But it also saves hundreds of other jobs, at least in the short-term.

Some 1,140 union members from a suburban Milwaukee plant voted, approving the contract by a 55 to 45 percent margin.

Mike Masik, president of the local chapter of the United Steel Workers, said the close vote reveals how unhappy workers were about the deal.

"It shows people are really getting sick of being threatened," he said.

Although the contract runs for seven years starting in April 2012, it doesn't guarantee the company will stay in Wisconsin that whole time, Masik said — only that the company will stop searching for alternate sites.

In northern Wisconsin, 293 workers at the Tomahawk plant approved the contract by a broader margin of 73 to 27 percent.

Those employees were more willing to concede because the loss of Harley jobs in such a small community would be far more devastating, said Frank Garrou, president of the union there.

"This is about jobs in the local economy," Garrou said. "Once they're gone they're gone. That's what it boiled down to."

The Milwaukee contract includes one-time lump-sum payments of $12,000, left over from a previous grievance settlement, which go to all active employees and to laid-off workers who were eligible to be called back.

A number of those laid-off workers voted yes, citing the money as a big factor.

"I was laid off, I had no chance of being called back so yeah, I wanted the $12,000," said Greg Kuehn, 49, a machinist who has since found work at a printing company. "If I still worked there, though, I would have voted no."

Some workers who did vote no said they thought the company was bluffing about moving in such a bad economy, while others were angry at being given such a bitter ultimatum.

"It was like, 'Take it or leave it,'" said Mary Dexter, 58, who has worked in a warehouse for almost 10 years. "Well, then, adios. See ya."

The Harley workers make motorcycle engines in Milwaukee and windshields and other components in the northern Wisconsin city of Tomahawk.

Harley said it appreciated both the outcome of the vote and the members' support of the contract.

"(Monday's) outcome in Milwaukee is a significant step toward creating the competitive, flexible operations that are essential to the company's future," it said in a statement.

Union member Greg Voelzke, 52, said he voted against the contract because it included no guarantees the company would stay.

"We came to battle today, not for victory, but to fight another day," said Voelzke, who has worked for Harley-Davidson for 22 years. He said he did not want to support a contract that offered so little.

Gary Walczak, who has driven a Harley truck for 40 years, was more circumspect, saying a non-guaranteed job is better than none.

"That's the whole reason I voted yes, just to keep jobs in Milwaukee," he said.

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