USW Determined to Save Whirlpool Plant in Arkansas

Fort Smith, Ark.–(ENEWSPF)–November 4, 2011.  The United Steelworkers union (USW) yesterday said it will make every effort to persuade Whirlpool Corp. to reverse a decision to close its Fort Smith, Ark., refrigerator plant in 2012.The closure decision, announced on Oct. 28, is a disappointment to the members of USW Local 370, who have worked diligently over the years to keep the plant competitive and profitable.

The USW is seeking meetings with the company to discuss the closure announcement and opportunities to save the plant, or in the alternative, to begin negotiations on a fair severance program for nearly 900 active hourly workers and another 800 who are laid off and eligible for recall.

“We can’t accept defeat without putting up a fight,” said Local 370 President Rick Nemeth. “We will turn over every stone in looking for opportunities to save the plant and the family-supporting jobs it has long provided in this community.”

Michigan-based Whirlpool, the world’s largest appliance maker, intends to send the Fort Smith plant’s main product, side-by-side refrigerators, to a factory in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. A trash compactor line is slated to move to Ottawa, Ohio, and built-in refrigerator production will move to Amana, Iowa.

As rumors of a Fort Smith closure surfaced in the weeks before the announcement, USW District Director J.M. “Mickey” Breaux offered assistance to Whirlpool to address problems and preserve jobs, but the company declined.

A Local 370 delegation also met on Sept. 15 with Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe to see what help the state could provide to keep Whirlpool in Fort Smith or to market the plant if it is closed. The governor, who said his office unsuccessfully attempted to contact Whirlpool about state aid before the announcement, promised to work with the USW and Whirlpool to save jobs. Beebe had previously helped to save a USW-represented Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana from announced closure with a financial incentive package.

Local President Nemeth and Vice President Howard Carruth also met with Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and city Administrator Ray Gossitt to discuss available options prior to the company’s announcement.

The loss of 1,000 Whirlpool jobs in Fort Smith will lead to an overall statewide loss of almost 1,550 jobs when vendors and other services are included, according to a study by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The study estimated total loss of income at $61.15 million.

“This is yet another example of what is happening to American manufacturing industries all across this nation,’’ USW International President Leo W. Gerard said. “It’s a continuing attack on our manufacturing sector and the livelihoods of hard-working Americans.”

Whirlpool cited recessionary demand levels in developed countries, a slowdown in emerging markets and higher material costs for its decision to reorganize in the United States and Europe and eliminate 5,000 jobs, including those at Fort Smith.

As it announced the cutbacks, Whirlpool reported third quarter net earnings of $177 million, more than double the $79 million in net earnings reported a year earlier.  Sales were $4.6 billion, up 2 percent from $4.5 billion last year.

USW members at Fort Smith over the years participated in labor management cooperation programs and became heavily engaged in lean manufacturing efforts in the last decade in an effort to keep the facility operating. Despite those efforts, Whirlpool moved jobs to Mexico beginning with lower-end products and later advancing to higher-end appliances.

Productive workers are paying the price for a profitable company seeking higher returns. Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Fettig said the cutbacks, on the heels of previously-announced price increases, should save $400 million a year, expand operating margins and improve shareholder value.

Ironically, in the same announcement, Whirlpool said it was inducted into the Made in the USA Foundation’s Hall of Fame during the quarter. The foundation recognizes companies that contribute to American manufacturing, labor and environmental standards, job creation in the United States and promotion of American-made products.

For decades Whirlpool products were made entirely in the United States but that changed with a corporate focus on global markets and production. The Fort Smith plant employed 4,600 five years ago, but that number dwindled as Whirlpool expanded a refrigerator plant in Mexico.

Last year, Whirlpool closed a refrigerator plant in Evansville, Ind., that made freezer-topped refrigerators, idling 1,000 people. Evansville production was also moved to Mexico. At the time, Whirlpool was criticized for exporting jobs while receiving a $19.3 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart” appliances.

The USW represents 850,000 members in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. It is the largest private sector union in North America, representing workers in a wide range of industries including metals, mining, rubber, paper and forestry, oil refining, plus office, technical and service workers in health care, security, hotels and municipal governments and agencies.