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Auto Workers Caught In The Middle Of Indiana’s Senate Race

Chrysler and union flags

Photo: Gretchen Frazee/WFIU-WTIU News

A Chrysler, American and union flag flies above the Chrysler auto plant in Kokomo.

Rick Ward is joking with retirees playing pool and chatting with union secretaries in the United Auto Workers union hall in Kokomo.

Ward is a union steward who works on the floor of the Chrysler transmission plant. In 2009, the plant laid off most of his crew. He says men were coming to work crying, worried about the future. These days, things are better. Chrysler is hiring hundreds of people in Kokomo, including some of Ward’s relatives.

“We have a great deal of union pride in my family,” he says. “I have two sons and two daughter in laws that have been hired in last two years since bankruptcy.”

The Auto Bailout and the U.S. Senate Race

It has been three years since the controversial bailout of Chrysler and other auto manufacturers. But the debate continues. U.S. Senate candidates from Indiana Richard Mourdock and Joe Donnelly are at odds over Mourdock’s opposition to the sale of Chrysler. Mourdock opposed the sale because he says it did not give state pensioners a fair deal. Donnelly says enacting the bailout preserved jobs.

November’s election is all about the jobs, and state employees and auto workers like Ward are caught in the middle of the debate. Ward and UAW President George Maus want people to see what is happening during the good times at the plant.

“It’s easy for someone to come in here with a TV camera, when times are bad,” Maus says. “And sometimes we don’t always end up being seen in the best light. They need to come when there’s something good happening. It’s not always a strike or a labor action.”

Two Opposing Views

Still, the debate about the bailout goes on, and the UAW is staunchly backing Donnelly because unlike his opponent, Donnelly supported the bailout. For his part, Mourdock says the bailout was wrong. He favors the free market and opposes government intervention.

“Virtually all Hoosiers, even most members of the United Auto Workers, understand that it’s not the government’s role to pick winners and losers in the marketplace and that’s what happened,” he says.

Mourdock says the autoworkers came out of the bailout with a better deal than state employees, whose pension funds were invested in Chrysler. The pension funds received 29 cents on the dollar for their investment.

That is why Mourdock filed a lawsuit opposing Chrysler’s bankruptcy deal. If the deal had fallen through, Chrysler would have been liquidated, and the pension funds would have  received 10 cents on the dollar. But Donnelly says pension funds are not the issue. He stands for the free market, but says private investors were not going to save Chrysler. For him, the issue is job preservation.

“Do we let an entire industry go away, and in the process would destroy over 100,000 Indiana jobs, or do we give it a chance to succeed?” Donnelly says.

Indiana University Professor of Public Affairs Les Lenkowsky says Mourdock’s lawsuit was justified.

“When he filed that lawsuit he was representing retired teachers, policeman, their wives, their widows and their children, who had state pension funds,” Lenkowsky says.

Lenkowsky says Mourdock should not worry about the criticisms he has received for his lawsuit, because advocating for teachers and police is a political slam dunk. In the end, the federal court dismissed Mourdock’s lawsuit, saying no bankruptcy laws had been broken. UAW Vice President Brian McKinley is sympathetic to the state workers, but says the Kokomo plant has a huge affect on the local economy.

“In some of these discussions it does sound a little bit selfish, because it’s easy to say it saved my job, and the town, the community that I live in,” he says. “What you can’t see, is all the people that’s employed here right now, that don’t necessarily live in Howard county.

UAW workers and state pensioners find themselves voting on their future based on something that happened three years ago.  McKinley is behind Donnelly, but Professor Lenkowsky says there is no reason at this point in the election to think either candidate has a clear advantage.

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