David Michael Miller
I grew up in Brillion, a small town in east-central Wisconsin whose economy was anchored by an iron foundry. The Brillion Iron Works — or simply the BIW or “Dub” in our local vernacular — dates to 1890 and was long known as one of the nation’s best independent iron foundries.
More than 1,000 people worked there in my youth. Many farmers supplemented their incomes there, and it seemed as if every family had some connection to the foundry. In those years, the foundry supported a variety of local institutions, including Wisconsin Public Radio and its statewide broadcasts of classical music.
The beloved local owner sold the BIW to outside interests in 1969, and ownership changed hands a few times over the past decades. A Michigan predator corporation bought it in early September for $14 million. Less than two weeks later, Metaldyne Performance Group Inc. abruptly announced it was permanently closing the BIW — removing all equipment and machinery, laying off all of the nearly 350 remaining workers and placing the property up for sale in December.
As the foundry closed its doors forever, union workers made large donations to local organizations. “We were looking for some kind of legacy to represent the people that have been here and working at the Iron Works all these years,” Rick Conrad, president of the BIW Union, told The Brillion News on Dec. 29. “We thought it was something that we could do that people could see for a long time.”
I only wish Wisconsin’s elected leaders had the same willingness to stand up for Brillion and its workers.
Why do Wisconsin’s laws and policies allow an out-of-state predator corporation to buy a major local industry, close it immediately and abandon the community?
It doesn’t have to be this way. People make laws in a democracy, and can change them.
How could it be different? First of all, corporate business owners could be legally required to take local people into account before selling or closing any major business or industry. Wisconsin could legally require that workers and local communities be given an opportunity — a “first right of refusal” — to buy a major business or industry and run it themselves, before allowing it to be sold to outside interests or shut down.
The state of Wisconsin, through the UW Business School, could offer assistance and expertise to workers and community members, helping them to understand the options for local ownership and management of the company.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation could also play a role. This entity reportedly controls over $500 million in bonds, grants, loans and tax credits to support Wisconsin businesses. Why can’t this economic assistance be used to save Wisconsin industries like the BIW? Or the Manitowoc Company, Mirro Aluminum or Hamilton Manufacturing? If these companies had had real state support and the ability to convert to a form of local ownership, these manufacturing plants might still be operating today.
Is local ownership and management realistic? Think of the Green Bay Packers. Without local ownership, the Packers would have long ago been sold and relocated out of state, like so many other teams.
Successful industries in Wisconsin that are owned by their local communities include 82 municipally owned electric power utilities, providing low-cost and dependable power to nearly 300,000 customers across our state. That is 11 percent of all electricity service in Wisconsin!
There are also businesses owned by Employee Stock Ownership Plans, where the workers become the owners of the company. An ESOP offers greater community control of the business while often allowing workers to earn more than their counterparts in traditional firms. Today 14 million American workers participate in nearly 10,000 ESOPs.
A workers’ cooperative structure is another model of local ownership. Today more than 72,000 cooperative establishments in the U.S. provide more than 2 million jobs. And right here at the UW we have the Center for Cooperatives, a nationally renowned resource for cooperatives, as well as the UW Extension’s School for Workers, to provide technical assistance to the people of our state.
Recently, Chicago’s New Era Windows converted to a worker cooperative after the previous owner, Republic Windows, announced the closing of the plant. The workers eventually bought the factory in 2012 and, as they note on their website, now own the plant together and run it democratically: “Everyone decided enough was enough. If we want to keep quality manufacturing jobs in our communities, perhaps we should put in charge those who have the most at stake in keeping those jobs — the workers.”
Private property owners have a public responsibility to members of the community. The people of Brillion should have had a similar opportunity to purchase the foundry and keep it going. The state of Wisconsin should stand with the workers and communities of this state to guarantee they have this opportunity and the means to pull it off.
Bert Zipperer is a longtime activist and former Madison alderperson.