Community rallies around striking workers in Ashland, WI

May 29, 2012
Sara Nemec
news photo

For striking Ashland Industries welder James Pupp, of Ashland, the show of support Saturday afternoon from friends and neighbors at a rally held for the 43 workers was touching.

“It feels good to see all these people here to help our cause to get back to work again,” said Pupp, who has been employed at the firm for 10 years. “All we want is our security and our family health plan.”

Held in the H. Pearson Plaza, the rally featured live music, food and speakers, such as State Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland.

The event gave the community the opportunity to give donations to support the workers. Some also brought homemade signs and lined the side of Lake Shore Drive West, cheering and waving to oncoming traffic.

The rally began at noon and lasted until 4 p.m., with about 80 people in attendance at 2 p.m.

City Councilor Kelly Westlund, who represents Ward 11, spearheaded the effort, raising about $1,500 in cash, food and other donations to help support the striking workers.

Westlund said she was called to action by a friend who challenged her to step up and raise awareness for his and the other workers’ plight.

“You know with these guys, it’s not that they don’t like the company that they work for, it’s that they want to keep their rights intact. And they want to get back to work,” Westlund said. “I think it’s up to us to show them that we support them.”

The strike began on April 1, with employees of the heavy equipment manufacturer walking out after three weeks of failed negotiations. About a dozen members of the office staff stayed and continued their jobs. Negotiations continue with both groups meeting Wednesday.

Marty St. Peters, a union representative from the International Association of Machinists, confirmed two key issues kept both sides from reconciling.

First, Ashland Industries no longer wanted to provide health insurance to the families of new employees. Second, the company wanted to give new workers a choice of whether to join the union, which St. Peters said weakened union bargaining power.

However, Ashland Industries Vice-President Bob Eder said the company recognized one issue: Giving employees the opportunity to opt out of the union, which he called “freedom of choice.”

“Our hearts go out to the families and the guys and again we hope that there is a quick resolution to this,” Eder said in an interview Sunday. “It’s unfortunate that it came to this, but I think the strike has kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Eder said the company continued to advertise for permanent replacement workers and said some had been hired, though he declined to divulge the number.

He admitted production had slowed down because of the strike, but was increasing again with the help of the new employees.

“It’s no secret that the strike has hurt everyone economically,” Eder said. “We support the striking workers. We hope we can resolve this soon.”

On Saturday, individuals came to the rally, whether they knew the individuals on strike or not.

One such person was Joe Groshek, of Washburn, who displayed a pro-union sign by Lake Shore Drive West.

“I don’t know any of these individuals on strike, but if one of us is on strike, all of us are on strike. Workers have to stick together.

“That’s why we’re all here today supporting these folks, because they’re representing all of us, all the working people in Wisconsin and the United States,” he said.

Joining him was Rick Lunda, of Ashland, who said he knew several of the striking workers personally. Lunda said he was there not only to support his friends, but also to stand up for unions in general.

“Personally, I hope it opens the eyes of the companies out there. They can’t treat workers this way,” he said. “It’s more than just the bottom line. It’s about fairness.”