Image: Ronald Czarnecki
Aj Mast  /  AP
Ronald Czarnecki puts away chairs after the UAW Local 364 gathering to mark the end of a 40-month fight.
updated 10/18/2009 2:00:29 PM ET 2009-10-18T18:00:29

By 10:30 a.m. the lot fronting Disabled American Veterans Post 19 is nearly full and a table spread with potato salad and Port-a-Pit chicken beckons.

The only thing missing, mutters one of the workers, is a banner: "Welcome to Our Last Supper."

This gathering marks the end of a 40-month fight over who owns the craftsmanship that gives life to a factory floor. These men and women have logged decades making trumpets of such sinuous precision they are called the Stradivarius of brass.

In the end, though, there is no music.

"Lord God, you know what the plan is for our lives," Bertha Carpenter prays as fellow workers bow their heads. "And let us be ever grateful."

This is the story of a decision — of 234 workers, one company and countless consequences.

Back when times were good, many Americans made decisions that seemed like sure things. Millions gambled their homes, betting prices could only go up. Others bet their retirement security on the stock market.

But workers at the Vincent Bach factory bet on what seemed more modest expectations. When they walked out on strike, they had no get-rich-quick illusions. At best, the thinking went, if they stuck together they'd keep hold of their prized rung on the economic ladder.

Today that bet is being called.

But like Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years and came back to a place he barely recognized, the men and women of Bach return to a vastly different landscape than the one they left behind.

A poster child
Over the last year, Elkhart has become a poster child for the recession.

Millions across the country lost jobs, but Elkhart was slammed by the nation's largest jump in unemployment. Many of the factories that made it the capital of recreational vehicle manufacturing shut down. Twice since election, President Obama has come to Elkhart County to spotlight economic despair.

But this story begins in a very different Elkhart, singled out by a Federal Reserve economist in 2006 as one of the Midwest's "jewels in the rust." Unemployment then hovered just above 4 percent and the RV plants were hiring.

But at the Bach factory there was little talk of going elsewhere for a paycheck.

The place was like a big family, workers say, and it's no exaggeration.

Stacy Curtis followed her dad in to Bach, where she met husband, Steve, one of the buffers blanketed in red dust her father supervised. Brad Milliken hired in as a janitor at 17 when his dad put the good word in, then did the same for younger brother, John.

Job openings at Bach were guarded like secrets. In a town with 45 percent of all jobs in factories, Bach paid near the top. The average worker made $21 an hour.

But the family sensibility went beyond the paychecks. On Fridays, workers circled around covered-dish lunches on the shop floor. On birthdays, they serenaded each other on whatever instrument was within reach.

Bach was equally bound by pride. In the music world, Vincent Bach is synonymous with cornets, trombones and, especially, trumpets.

"Once you got done with an instrument," Jeff Hoogenboom says, "it was like a jewel."

That pride reached back to the 1920s when the original Bach, an Austrian immigrant, set up shop in New York. He was so certain of his trumpets' superiority he named them for the world's most legendary instrument.

Bach sold his company in 1961. The new owner moved it to Elkhart, which, by the 1970s, supplied 40 percent of the world's band instruments. But the company and the world around it began to change.

In 1993, two investment bankers acquired Bach's parent firm, then merged it with famed piano maker Steinway & Sons, creating the nation's largest musical instrument manufacturer.

The new owners pushed to speed production. They eliminated the plant's saxophone line. The company earned $13.8 million in 2005. But executives were wary of Chinese producers, whose $200 trumpets targeted the large student market.

The company would not comment for this story, but its demands were clear. On the final day of their contract in March 2006, every worker received a letter from president John Stoner. Bach was losing money on student instruments. An Asian manufacturer could take over for a fraction of the cost.

"While I would prefer to keep work and jobs at Bach, we cannot and will not do so if it means we produce instruments at a loss," Stoner wrote.

The company demanded cuts that would drop average pay $6 an hour. Workers would pay more for health insurance and overtime would be mandatory, a requirement some called a "family killer."

On April 1, 2006, workers gathered to respond.

"We hollered and hollered and said, 'Hell, yeah,"' Stacy Curtis says.

The vote was 185-37. The strike was on.

More than a little ornery
The first night on the picket line, strikers huddled around burn barrels. But the mood was upbeat and more than a little ornery. Most recalled the only other recent strike — a 1990s walkout lasting just eight days.

This time would be different, they knew.

"We know exactly where the pressure points are on the union. They know where they are on us," Steinway CEO Dana Messina told Wall Street analysts soon after the strike began.

Many jobs in the plant took months to learn. Without them, workers joked, the company would be reduced to selling inferior "musically shaped objects."

"We were craftsmen," says Jerry Stayton, then the president of United Auto Workers Local 364, which represented the workers.

Workers built plywood sheds along the right of way. They rotated in for picket duty around the clock, gathering around TVs powered off generators, holding fish fries.

After 32 years at the plant, John Milliken savored time for breakfast with his wife. Co-workers kidded him when he showed up for strike duty on a bike. But Milliken marveled at the smell of the lilacs along the route and the weight he was taking off from the exercise.

In June, the company began hiring replacements. A fight broke out between strikers and men come to claim their jobs.

Then, the two sides grasped at compromise — calling for workers return at wages capped at $21 an hour.

"We should accept this and live to fight another day," Stayton told workers from the front of the DAV hall.

The sticking point was the replacement workers. Company negotiators said they'd be let go, but few believed them.

"Get it in writing!" strikers shouted. A few minutes later, they voted the contract down.

Money gets tight
At weekly meetings, the union handed out $200 strike pay checks. But for workers who'd expected the walkout to last weeks, money was growing tight.

Stayton, who'd long worked a second job, took on more hours at Star Tire, fueling strikers' criticism he wasn't giving enough time to leading the local. Brad Milliken found a job sweeping floors at a cargo trailer factory.

But the place was dirty and work was hard. Some workers called him the "retiree" — sticking an expletive in front to make clear they meant no respect. John Milliken could see his brother was unhappy. He had no idea.

On April 10, the brothers — longtime fans of Notre Dame women's basketball — took their seats at the team's annual banquet. Brad turned to John.

"I don't want to make you get sick here," he said.

John looked at his brother, confused.

"I'm going back in," Brad said.

For months a small but steady trickle of workers had been crossing the picket line. Brad was "Scab No. 37."

John loved his brother. But that didn't make the decision easy to stomach. Brad had long enjoyed a friendship with Stoner, the company president. The younger Milliken, though, was furious at managers. "Thugs," he called them.

Brad returned to find parts for 1,200 Stradivarius trumpets stacked up, waiting to be assembled.

At home, Stacy and Steve Curtis examined their expenses. NASCAR tickets would have to go. They canceled rental of their weekend spot on a Michigan lake, sold the golf cart and the camper.

Meanwhile, replacement workers called the National Labor Relations Board. A vote was set on whether the union would continue to represent plant workers.

Strikers lined up to vote. But so did replacements. Some strikers were told their vote might not count because their jobs had been taken.

Workers' anger was also finding another target — the union itself, which they blamed for poor representation and counsel.

At the same time, the company was learning to live without the strikers. Steve Curtis found work at another instrument maker, then discovered his new employer had a contract from Bach to make trumpets. It left him uncomfortable.

Then again, at least he had a job.

Painful weakness
By the summer of 2008, Elkhart's strength — the RV factories — was turning in to a painful weakness.

The recession was taking hold and as consumers cut back, they crossed RVs off their lists. Lenders cut credit to manufacturers. Dealers slashed orders. Plant after plant sent workers home and shut down lines.

By this spring, the area jobless rate reached 18.9 percent. Within Elkhart, it neared 21 percent.

When John Milliken got an offer to be a custodian at Northridge High School, he was grateful. At $13 an hour, it paid much less than Bach. But benefits were generous and for the first time in years, he felt like the people he worked for accorded him respect.

Steve Curtis, laid off from another horn maker, grabbed a friend's offer for 20 hours a week in his instrument repair shop.

But the odd jobs that had kept bellmaker Steve Kiefer afloat vanished. When his 1988 pickup broke down, he couldn't afford to fix it. He fell behind on his mortgage and began thinking it might be better to let the bank have the place.

On the strike's third anniversary, workers called a reunion. But talk at the tables was full of apprehension.

The vote would decide the battle. After months of lawyers' arguments, federal inspectors tallied ballots — 113 to get rid of the union, 107 to keep it. But eight ballots — enough to swing it either way — were still contested.

On Monday, Aug. 4, strikers were back on the picket line when cell phones began to ring. The ruling was in. The ballots of two strikers would not be counted because they had been replaced.

After three years, four months and four days, there was nowhere to go but home.

Mealtime
Before the last meal is served, buffers and bellmakers cluster anxiously around a health insurance salesman's table. Workers with gray hair pull chairs alongside one another and concede they were only a few years from retirement anyway.

But for younger workers, it's not nearly so clear.

A few call Brad Milliken: "Hey, can you get me in?" Even that wouldn't turn back the clock. Two weeks after the strike ended, managers summoned workers who crossed the line and cut their pay. Brad, who made $24.50 an hour before the strike, is down to $17.

Deneen Stout, just divorced and with a new associate's degree, figures she'll move away and find a job as a medical assistant.

"Don't put any dates or years on your resume," she counsels former co-worker Chuck Miller. "I learned that in college."

By noon, workers are filtering out, carrying leftover chicken in foam boxes. But Stacy Curtis is not quite ready to call it over.

She points her pickup back down Industrial Parkway. In front of the Bach plant, she slows to tally empty parking spaces.

But Curtis has seen enough. She gives the F-150 a little gas. Down the street, a warehouse is getting ready to open. Maybe they need a worker with experience. She might as well ask.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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