Ralliers Cling to a Dream

by Tess Wheelwright | March 4, 2006 11:24 PM | | Comments (2)

Donald Harris grew up dreaming of a job at the Winchester rifle factory (now called U.S. Repeating Arms, or USRAC), which he could see from his window out of the old Elm Haven high rises. Harris (pictured) joined about 100 others at a rally of workers, union leaders, elected officials, and supporters to say: Don’t take my dream away.

“I grew up dreaming about one day I’d have a union job at Winchester,” said Harris, after a series of spirited speeches at the factory gates on 344 Winchester Ave, Friday afternoon sponsored by the Winchester Citizens Ad Hoc Committee. “I was there for the strike in 1979 — I was only 13 years old! I just walked over,” said Harris.

Harris had come out to show his solidarity and hear speakers including Mayor DeStefano, John Reynolds, president of the International Association of Machinists Local 609, and Craig Gauthier, the chair of the Winchester Citizens Ad Hoc Committee, keep the pressure on USRAC not to abandon its workers. The company announced in January that it will be closing its doors at the end of March, and has a meeting with the union scheduled for Monday to negotiate severance packages and seniority benefits. The Citizens Ad Hoc Committee still holds out hope for a buyer for the whole plant, and the current workforce kept on to manufacture Winchester rifles.

“I finally got my dream,” said Harris, who’s worked at the plant for 10 years. “And now they’re trying to take it away from me.”

Craig Gauthier, who is also the former president of the union, talked about Winchester as a lot of people’s dream. “Winchester is our hope. It’s what gives our children something to look forward to, knowing they can come out of high school and get a good union job. This isn’t about 187 jobs, it’s about 187 families,” said Gauthier.

Donald Harris has a wife, a 15 year-old daughter and a 10 year-old son; he doesn’t know what he’ll do if the plant really shuts its doors as planned at the end of the month. But he said he doesn’t worry for himself as much as for his older co-workers. “You’ve got people that are 55 years old and been working at the plant their whole lives. I can’t see a 55 year-old getting another job too easily.”

As for himself, he said he’d “let the chips fall where they may,” and he guessed he’d land on his feet. “I’m 39 years old, I’m healthy, I’ve been in worse situations than this.”

For Harris, then, it was the insult as much as the injury that drove him out into Friday’s cold. A company can’t just leave older workers with nowhere to go, he said. Harris’s co-worker Carey Dawson (in photo), who’s been at the factory 7 years and has a family of six including a newborn to support, agreed. “I’m not looking out just for myself, I’m looking out for everybody,” Dawson said, citing the special vulnerability of the retirement-age workers.

For both Harris and Dawson, the fight’s not over yet. They’re going to keep on going to Citizens Ad Hoc Committee meetings, cross their fingers for good results from Monday’s negotiations, and keep up the hope. “Things are going to come out right,” said Harris.

Craig Gauthier continues to feed that hope. “We want workers to understand that we’re not walking away,” he told what was left of the crowd at the end of the event. “You should get health care. Seniority should continue. The Citizens Ad Hoc Committee is not going away.” He advocated for sure jobs for current workers, “whether making Winchester guns, or bicycle parts or whatever it is.”

Gauthier also referred to money he said USRAC had left over from its tax abatement, and to manufacturing equipment that had been removed from the factory, adding, “We don’t want to company to walk away with anything.”

Harris said that Mayor DeStefano has been a “strong supporter of the cause all along,” turning up for Ad Hoc Committee events and this past Wednesday sending a letter to the USRAC Herstal Group in Belgium about its default on its contract with the city.

John Harrity, an advocate for manufacturing workers as the director of GrowJobs Connecticut, was in the crowd circulating with copies of a document asking “If USRAC is a straight shooter,” then why is there a Russian Winchester rifle? The document focused, with suspicion, on the company’s claim to be stopping business, not moving it.

Shirley Lawrence also bore Friday’s cold with others from Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (CORD). She said she was happy with the turnout from CORD and glad for the busload of Yale workers who had come out to show Unite HERE Local 34 and 35 support. Earlier, that group had been in Stratford showing solidarity with the Teamsters Local 1150 workers striking against Sikorsky Aircraft. “We’re in this together,” Lawrence said.

Shivering visibly, she added, “The fight continues.”

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Posted by: Gary | March 13, 2006 12:57 PM

It's a sad day for all those Americans losing their jobs... livelihood. It's a sad day for all of us AMERICANS.....IT"S a part of our History....Can anyone do something?????
God Bless......Gary

Posted by: Kris Vermeiren | April 4, 2006 5:29 AM

I read about Winchester in Belgian newspaper De Standaard (25-26 March, article written by your colleague Frank Kools partly based upon information from Newhaven Independent, I guess). Since a can't find Craig Gauthier's mail-address on Google, would you please be so kind to deliver this message to him ! I known this is not a newspaper's first role, but allow me not to question your civil concern.

"Dear Craig
I read about your struggle. Don't trust Herstal. I'm convinced they will move the machinery, as thieves in the night. To my humble opinion, the only effective action Winchester workers can undertake is to occupate the factory. Remind the LIPP workers in Besançon, east of France, some 25 years ago. The swiss and french Jura region has a tradition of fabricating fine (wrest)watches, being craftsmen as yourselves. The LIPP factory was even so mismanaged and in order to avoid displacement of machinery a democratic large majority of the workers decided (in 1982 if I'm right) for occupation and after some time restarted production as a cooperative company. For some 10 years they did very well and I remember the Lipp watches were popular again, partly trough solidarity of French and European fellow workers (the Lipp's brave action was a symbol of hope). I ignore the sequel and I don't want to give you false hope, but search Google for the Lipp story !
I read mayor DeStefano is committed to your cause (which is his damned duty, of course) and wants the town (= the community) to take over. Herstal refuses and tries to gain time. So put pressure on the kettle. Act, assemble and occupate before it is to late. And let the city negotiate. Now they have nothing in hands, but with a community acting... You are the people of Newhaven and the people is sovereign. Keep yourselves the finger at the trigger, if you allow me to say. But don't act as a small committee, envolve all the others. And don't listen to me, I'm just pointing you at Lipp and doing a slight proposal. I know, Connecticut is not France in terms of solidarity, but you never know !
Kris Vermeiren
Brussels, Belgium

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