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TEST Sour notes still echo on an Elkhart picket line

TEST Elkhart, Ind., workers who have been on strike for three years against a company that makes musical instruments don't expect much sympathy in an  area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Msnbc's Mike Stuckey reports.
Image: Conn Selmer strike auction and dinner, UAW, Elkhart, Indiana
Conn-Selmer striker David Kish talks with a friend at a dinner on April 1, the third anniversary of the walkout by members of UAW Local 364.Carissa Ray /
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In a town with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, being on strike is not going to get you much sympathy. And staying on strike for three years is going to earn you even less.

“People don’t respect us. They look at us like, ‘You are stupid because you’re on strike when you could have a good job,’” said David Kish, 62, who spent 40 years making trumpets, trombones and other musical instruments at Elkhart’s Vincent Bach plant before he and 230 fellow union members walked off their jobs April 1, 2006. About 130 workers remain on strike.

The strike has never officially ended, although production at the plant was disrupted only briefly before the company hired replacement workers. It later lured a number of strikers to cross the picket lines.

“Scabs,” said John Fruchey, vice president of United Auto Workers Local No. 364, to which the striking workers belong.

Kish, Fruchey, Local President Robert Allen and other union members meet up once a week at Elkhart’s Disabled American Veterans hall to collect their strike pay and share coffee and doughnuts. There they chat bitterly about Conn-Selmer, the Bach instrument line’s parent company, and the 70 or so replacement workers and strike-breakers they say are now working for far less than the average $20 an hour that was paid in the plant’s heyday.

Union officials said the strikers walked out when contract talks broke down over wages and benefits, with the company demanding 40 percent pay cuts and substantial reductions in vacation, retirement and health insurance.

'Corporate terrorism'
“We would have extended the current contract, we asked for nothing,” said Kish, who believes the company wanted to force a strike to destroy the union. “I call it corporate terrorism.”

Steinway Musical Instruments, the New York Stock Exchange-listed company that owns Conn-Selmer, declined to comment. The company has been trying since 2007 to get the union decertified, but the results of a disputed vote on the issue won’t be decided until President Obama fills vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

In the meantime, the striking Conn-Selmer workers pull shifts on the picket line outside the plant, gathering every now and then for larger reunions, such as a three-year anniversary potluck at a park in Elkhart that featured labor singer Anne Feeney.

If the union is decertified at Conn-Selmer, local leaders say the strike would finally end and they’d lose their $200 week strike benefits and union-paid medical insurance. But many of their members would be free to pursue retirement benefits.

If the union is not decertified, they are less certain about what will happen. The company and the union have continued to negotiate since the strike. In September, they appeared to be moving closer to an agreement over severance packages that could help conclude the dispute.

Regardless, many of the older strikers said they think their working days are over, a conclusion hard to argue with in a town where unemployment hovers around 19 percent.

“You don’t find jobs when you’re 60-plus,” said Fruchey, 62.

“We don’t want to go to McDonald’s and flip burgers,” agreed Kish.