Makeshift tents have been built to shield locked out workers from the rain and hot sun near the Honeywell Plant on South Bend’s west side. They have replaced the fire barrels that once stretched along lightly traveled Westmoor Street aimed at keeping protesters warm on a cold day. Port-o-potty’s also dot the landscape along the public right-of-way.
Picket signs let passer’s by know of workers frustration with the company. Workers insist the company has picked the wrong town and the wrong local to mess with. They seek support of their efforts from passers by in the form of a honk or wave.
Locked out workers are also keeping close tabs on whose coming and going, with binoculars giving them an inside look and iPhones helping record every movement.
In the meantime, the company works to keep the plant open and operational, instead relying on salaried employees and temporary workers to complete customer orders and maintain operations. Those workers are escorted quickly to awaiting shuttle buses after their arrival or before their departure to ensure safe passage in and out of the building.
There is no end in sight to the stalemate that has left the company and its employees at odds since early May. Soon displaced workers will begin their fourth month off the job. Some 317 workers are affected.
At the heart of the issue is a dispute over health insurance and what premiums may cost over the next five years. It’s a dispute that is playing out in workforces everywhere, not just in South Bend or at Honeywell. Double digit increases in premium costs have left employers everywhere in a difficult situation as to how to pay for those costs.
Business owners insist health insurance is their most difficult issue to deal with. Gone are the days where health insurance was predictable. In the past, companies could plan for modest increases on an annual basis and plan accordingly when preparing budgets or negotiating contracts. These days it’s a lot harder to predict.
In recent years, employees in almost every workplace have taken on a bigger chunk of the health insurance responsibility.
It seems that businesses and employees want the same thing. Businesses wish there was more certainty when it came to planning for health costs. Employees are seeking certainty as well related to their costs. I’m not sure it’s possible to satisfy either desire in this continuously changing healthcare marketplace.
Gone are the days of long term contracts, such as the one Honeywell workers are seeking. No employer has a crystal ball clear enough to predict future costs.
The lockout really doesn’t benefit anyone. Workers have lost months of wages and uncertainty remains as to when they may return to work and if they will receive unemployment benefits.
The company has lost productivity and faced the challenges of keeping the plant running and integrating temporary workers into the local workforce. They also are left with uncertainty about the future, this plant, and this product line. In the end, they have customers relying on the products that are made in South Bend.
And the community also is a loser. The impasse between the two groups could have long term lasting impacts. In the end, does the company decide South Bend is the right location to produce product or do they instead opt for one of their many other facilities across the country or around the world.
Or does such a stand-off influence other companies considering this region for a future home? Time will tell.
In the end, it seems it’s in everyone’s best interest to find some common ground and put this ugly chapter behind.
Jeff Rea is chief executive officer of the St. Joseph County Chamber of Commerce.