Bainport leverages election in outsourcing fight

In the countdown to Election Day, the Romney presidential campaign is working hard to dispel what many Americans perceive as its candidate’s hypocrisy about saving American jobs. Workers from the “Bainport” camp in Freeport, Illinois — named after Bain Capital, the company Mitt Romney co-founded in 1984 — are revealing an important but embarrassing truth about Romney and the economics he stands for: shipping American jobs to China is still too profitable for America’s 1 percent to resist.

Sensata, a high-tech automotive electronics company, announced that it was closing its Freeport plant and moving its operations to China. The company is majority-owned by Bain Capital, in which Romney currently owns millions of dollars in shares. The 170 workers who will lose their jobs are seeking full severance compensation instead of the 26 weeks of severance pay that Sensata has offered, even while the company continues posting record profits.

Sensata bought the plant from Honeywell in January 2011. The workers were then notified that in 2012 all of their jobs would be outsourced to China. Once Sensata workers found out in June about Bain Capital’s financing of Sensata and Romney’s connection to Bain, they decided to protest the loss of their jobs — first through petitions and appeals for support and then, later, with an indefinite encampment that started on September 12.

Bainport spokesperson and Sensata worker Tom Gaulrupp told Waging Nonviolence that, after months of petitioning their company, workers felt like they had no choice but to set up a tent city on county fairgrounds across the street from their employer.

“What we are trying to do is raise awareness about outsourcing in general,” said Gaulrupp when he was reached by phone. “We thought the best way to spend our last couple of months [at Sensata] was to set up a tent city to get Romney to come here and talk about it.”

The Bainport workers’ appeals to Mitt Romney to intervene in saving American jobs have been totally ignored. Romney campaign managers in Madison, Wisconsin, locked the doors and called the police when Bainport workers tried to deliver a letter asking Romney to clarify his economic positions at the Sensata plant. According to Gaulrapp, Bainport workers were also forcibly removed from Romney campaign offices in Iowa. Workers had previously attempted to meet with Romney at the Republican National Convention in August, but were denied access and removed by U.S. Secret Service. These experiences have left a bitter taste in their mouths.

“Nowhere do we say ‘Vote for Obama.’” said Gaulrupp. “We are urging people not to vote for Mitt Romney because of the vulture capitalism business model he put in place.”

Spreading the message

After months of little support outside of progressive media outlets like Democracy Now!, the persistent and steadfast spirit of the Bainport workers is making headlines across the nation and globe. Major media coverage of the encampment forced the company to shut down the plant the weekend of October 20-21 in anticipation of MSNBC’s The Ed Show filming live from Bainport. Coverage from The New York Times, The Guardian and Up with Chris Hayes has also helped catapult the plight of the Sensata workers into a national conversation on American jobs and the economy.

Bainport has drawn the support of some high-profile politicians and public figures; Senator Dick Durbin, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn have all voiced their support for the workers. United Auto Workers president Bob King and Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry have also visited the camp in recent weeks.

More significantly, the community and grassroots support at Bainport is what has kept this campaign going. As awareness of the camp has spread, people have begun making it a destination — often detouring an hour off the nearest interstate to visit the workers. Workers from South Korea have sent food to Bainport and a retired school teach from Portland, Oregon, arrived last week to join the camp in solidarity.

“It is amazing the support we’ve got from just everyday people. It has just been an absolute eye opener about what community is all about,” said Gaulrupp.

Documentary filmmaker Alder Lakish first learned about the Sensata workers on Democracy Now! after the camp started. The next day, he drove out to northwest Illinois with a trailer full of filming gear. Alder spent the next three weeks being inspired by the workers and documenting their stories and struggle. The film, Behind Your Back, which is now available on DVD, is a story about Americans fighting to save their factory jobs against policies like those of Mitt Romney.

“I didn’t set out to tell a political story,” said Lakish about the film, “but it’s unavoidable. These sincere folks have had the door slammed on them by Romney.”

The evolving political drama is also an evolving tactical struggle involving protest and civil disobedience. One two separate occasions, workers and supporters have been arrested for trying to block the removal of Sensata equipment that is being shipped to China. Most recently, on October 24, Jesse Jackson and 13 others were arrested for trying to meet with Sensata management, who have continually refused worker and community requests for meetings. At one point, workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago — now reconstituted as a worker-owned cooperative — visited Bainport for a strategy session.

Unfair labor practice charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board that alleged Sensata management was cracking down on protected concerted activity and threatening to close the plant early if workers continued to protest. A Sensata memo that was circulated the day after the 14 arrests stated that employees could leave with pay if they felt threatened by the protests — which would effectively shut down the plant immediately if employees opt to stop working.

The company then shut the plant down the following weekend after workers walked off their jobs in protest on October 25.

Beyond Bainport

The late-summer expose by Matt Taibbi on Romney and Bain Capital reveals the influential role the candidate played in the shady world of private equity before moving on to his gubernatorial career in Massachusetts. The image of a greedy, ruthless, out-of-touch 1 percenter has come to haunt a Romney campaign that is uncomfortable dealing with a reality-based working class.

In early October, giant banners were dropped in front of the Romney campaign headquarters and Bain Capital offices in Boston that declared “Stop the Romney Bain economy!” Activists with the “Bain Bus” — a nationwide tour of workers from Bain-affiliated companies — are spending the last few weeks before the election educating citizens in swing states about the dangers of a potential Romney economy.

The organizers for the Bain Bus are from a coalition called 99 Uniting that is urging its supporters to take action against a Romney economy at the polls. (Its organizers are among the same people who coordinated last April’s 99% Spring.) Traveling more than 7,200 miles, the Bain Bus reached thousands of people at 28 stops in 19 states, according to organizer Zoe Bridges-Curry. Current and former workers from Bain-affiliated companies, including Sensata workers, were instrumental in the campaign.

“As part of that effort, the bus tour allowed Bain workers to share their stories with everyday Americans and urge them to say no to Romney’s economic vision for the country on Election Day,” said Bridges-Curry in an email to Waging Nonviolence.

The problem of outsourcing, however, has plagued U.S. workers as globalization has progressed for the better part of three decades — under both Democrats and Republicans. Unions struggle to keep factory jobs here, but the government, including under the Obama administration, has favored trade policies that encourage exporting jobs to cheaper labor abroad.

The Sensata plant is slated to close at the end of 2012. The workers at Bainport have trained their Chinese replacements, watched their colleagues lose their jobs and seen equipment shipped out of the plant. As hard as it is, Gaulrupp says, there are not hard feelings toward the Chinese workers.

“We don’t blame workers in China. They need jobs too. We blame the greedy corporations that get deals from the Chinese government to pay people 99 cents an hour to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, without overtime and benefits,” said Gaulrupp.

In a recent report on Sensata’s mistreatment of its Chinese workers, AlterNet‘s Joshua Holland details the tax breaks Sensata received for relocating and the human rights violations in its Chinese plants.

The Bainport workers plan to continue their protest and efforts to raise awareness about the problems of outsourcing after the election. “These corporations destroy our American dream here and go over to China for its basically slave labor — purely for profit,” said Gaulrupp. “How do they sleep at night? Evidently they have no conscience at all.”

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