This past Tuesday, Harley-Davidson announced that it was closing its plant in Kansas City, Missouri.
It’s regrettably a common occurrence these days. During the Obama to Trump transition, much was made about a deal cut by Trump to save jobs at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sadly for the workers there, it was a pack of lies and called as much by Chuck Jones, president of USW Local 1999 and the union that the workers of the Carrier plant were members of, from the very start. None of these plant closings are novel. They’ve been happening since the 1970s as capital controls dropped along with trade barriers, allowing multinational corporations to move work to places where wages are low, workplace safety is nonexistent, and effective unions do not have the right to exist.
The Harley plant closure is especially a bitter pill to swallow, given that the company had been doing relatively well until recently. The reasons given for the plant closure (and the laying off of eight hundred workers) was a drop in net income caused largely by a 6.7% decline in sales last year. The ineffectual wad of centrist nonsense known as #TheResistance also seized on a statement blaming some of the earnings drop on changes caused by Trump’s tax cuts. It’s also a blow to scandal-wracked Governor of Missouri Eric Greitens. After his blackmailing of a woman he had an extramarital affair with came to light, a major plant closing is a wound his political career can ill-afford.
But there is another dimension to this that did not get reported in any of the coverage of this story that’s upending the lives of eight hundred workers. Back in September, the International Association of Machinists and United Steelworkers ended their labor-management partnership with Harley-Davidson over the company’s plan to build a plant in Thailand. The partnership agreement, two decades old and praised as a model by some, is the latest iteration of the ‘jointness’ trend first pioneered by UAW and General Motors in the 1980s. Focusing on collaboration and co-determination and informed by the European works council approach, these kinds of labor-management partnerships inevitably break down when the company wants to do something that will screw over its workers’ ability to organize, like it has here.
So while eight hundred workers will have their lives upended in Missouri, Harley-Davidson will plow ahead in standing up a brand new plant in Thailand. But why might they do that?