U.S. Senate candidate shows support for Blaw-Knox workers

MATTOON -- As vehicles passed by Thursday honking in support of the striking workers at Blaw-Knox, a U.S. Senate candidate pitched his take on the right to collectively bargain.

Blair Hull is a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and a former union member, teacher and successful businessman.

"I am very supportive of labor," Hull said. "I believe to have a fair and just society, we need the right to organize, we need the right to collectively organize, and we need the right to strike," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Hull stopped in Mattoon on his way to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. He told about 40 striking union members of the United Auto Workers Local 916, and other supporters, that his visit was not politically motivated, but instead was in support of the union.

Members waved large cut-out hands to the passers-by and held up a variety of signs expressing displeasure about Plant Manager Rick Wilbur and Labor Relations Manager Ron Richards at Blaw-Knox.

The strike began March 16, but even in recent days negotiations are ongoing between the company, union and a federal mediator.

"Everybody deserves a fair shake. It is about dividing things in our society in a fair and just way," Hull said. "We need stronger labor laws. We need fair trade, not just free trade. We need a level playing field, so we don't lose these jobs."

Hull said more than 2 million jobs have been lost nationally in the past year, but Illinois alone has lost more than 200,000 jobs. Calculated out, the state has only 5 percent of the nation's population, so the loss of jobs rate has been twice that of the rest of the nation, he said.

"This has to do in part with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), and partly due to the kind of manufacturing jobs we have in Illinois," he said.

He said there is a need to reform the corporate tax structure and businesses need to be given the right kinds of incentives so that jobs stay in the U.S.

Hull hopes to speak to UAW Local 916 President Mike Coventry in detail about the negotiation to learn why the strike hasn't been settled. Hull said he understands the negotiations process must be kept private.

"We are very glad that Mr. Hull was able to take time out of his busy schedule to stop by and show support for not only this union, but for all working people across the country," Coventry said.

A former member of Cannery Warehousemen Workers Local Union 679, Hull said he was never on strike. "I was asked to come here and be supportive of the effort here," Hull said. "I held a union card for three years -- 1962, '63 and '64."

A Blaw-Knox worker since 1979, Steve Lee of Cooks Mill said losing jobs to foreign countries is hurting many local companies. Blaw-Knox has lost jobs to India and China, he said.

"I'm just worried about all the work going overseas," said Lee. "How can we be a world power if we make nothing?"

With 25 years' experience, Mary Etta Thomas of Mount Zion said working the picket line in six-hour shifts is difficult.

"These days are long. I'd rather be working," Thomas said. "I want to go back to work. This hurts the economy of Mattoon, and the area."

But, she said, clarification in the Blaw-Knox Ingersoll-Rand contract is needed, first.

About 156 workers remain on strike.

The Mattoon plant opened in 1955 with production in full swing in 1956. Blaw Knox in recent years employed more than 400 workers, but recently that number hovered around 150.

Contact Dawn Schabbing at dschabbing@jg-tc.com or 238-6869.