Working at Harley-Davidson

John Hendrickson

Harley-Davidson is one of most iconic “American” companies in America. What does work on its shop floor look like?

Donald Trump talks with Harley Davidson executives on the South Lawn of the White House, February 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer / Getty

Interview by
Joe Allen

Donald Trump’s trade wars with China and the European Union have proved popular with sections of the US working class. Harley-Davidson, the iconic motorcycle makers, announced they will move more manufacturing jobs out of the US in response to new tariffs on their products, the result of backlash to Trump’s trade maneuvers.

Despite the prospect of losing their jobs, many Harley-Davidson workers support Trump’s policies. Why? Jacobin spoke to a retired Harley-Davidson worker John Hendrickson (not his real name) about the working conditions and political culture of the United States’ “most American” company in a search for answers.


JA

How long did you work at Harley-Davidson? What type of work did you do there?

JH

I worked there from late October 1988 to the end of May 2012. I was hired as a CNC machining-center operator and operated various other machines as needed. I also worked in the warehouse in Franklin, WI for a couple of years. My last ten years at H-D I ran a machining cell that consisted of about ten machines, including periodically setting up and running a two-station Okuma lathe, Miles broach, Wera profilating machine, Lorenz gear cutter, Lieberr gear cutter, Samputensili duburrer, two ABB robots as well as conveyors. This machine cell manufactured third and fourth gears for XL Transmissions.

My observations of life at Harley-Davidson are based on my own personal experience. I was just a typical worker. I went to union meetings, but I was hardly an “activist.”

JA

Can you describe the composition of the Harley-Davidson workforce for our readers?

JH

I was thirty-five when I was hired. The workforce in my area of the plant was around the same age. Harley-Davidson back then paid top dollar (still does, I assume), so it could afford to hire the best of the workers who picked up their skills in other companies and little job shops, as I did. So most of them had a few years under their belts before getting hired at Harley-Davidson.

In machining I’d guess the workforce was about 90 percent male, probably less than 20 percent black, Latino, and other minorities. The assembly line was considerably more diverse, maybe half female and a good percentage of minorities.

I worked at the warehouse in Franklin for almost two years. (That work has since been outsourced.) Most workers there hired on as seasonal “casuals” at a lesser rate, with the prospect of going to full-time status at a much better rate. The workers here were much younger, probably majority female and with a higher percentage of nonwhites.

Many of the workers at the warehouse actually had some college in, through trade school or whatever, and they weren’t inclined to take any shit. I remember they voted out their committeeman, who used to treat people in a very condescending manner. He didn’t know what hit him!

Because of the union contract, workers from the “less-skilled” occupations could bid into, and get trained in, better-paying jobs in the machine shop. That was nice. Of course, the skilled trades at Harley-Davidson, as in most companies, are mainly white and male.

Harley really started hiring big time in 1988, and it didn’t let up for a long time, so as the years went on there were fewer and fewer people with more seniority than me. Plus, the company liked to offer higher-seniority people really generous early-retirement packages, and a lot of people took advantage of this.

JA

Harley-Davidson likes to market itself as an American company. It promotes motorcycle culture that is known worldwide as the symbol of working-class masculinity. What does that mean on the job?

JH

It’s useful to compare the work environment at Harley-Davidson with those at other companies. Before Harley, I worked at the Milwaukee Railroad shops for a year and at GE Medical Systems — as an electrical assembler and then as a drill press and milling machine operator — for about six years, plus several small machine shops. The general feeling of the workers at those companies was indifference bordering on antagonism toward management.

The management at GE in particular made it clear that we were garbage as far as they were concerned. None of the workers at GE identified with the company. They did their jobs and got a paycheck. That was it.

The atmosphere at Harley-Davidson was really different. In 1981, when the AMF Corporation sold the company to a group of management employees, they set out to run things a lot differently than a lot of companies. They were going to strive toward a less-combative atmosphere, cooperate more with the unions, provide a decent wage and benefits, and so forth. They also streamlined and modernized production and got quality way up. They refurbished the company’s image after it had been run into the ground by AMF.

So when I hired on in 1988, I was pretty happy. I started at H-D a year after they resumed hiring after a long drought, and the hiring didn’t let up for many years after that.

As you point out, the Harley-Davidson brand is synonymous with “working-class masculinity,” not to mention a certain outlaw mystique. Even if a typical Harley rider these days is a doctor or a lawyer — Harley-Davidson motorcycles aren’t cheap!

I noticed right away that the workforce at Harley was totally into this. Many of the workers there ride Harleys themselves (we got a 20 percent discount), go to Sturgis, Daytona, and similar events, and act as ambassadors for the company. I remember being asked by another worker, not long after I started there, why I wasn’t wearing a Harley T-shirt like everybody else. Of course, to fit in, I bought a bunch (they’re on sale cheap in the company store). I’ve never had an interest in riding myself, even though they are good machines.

Harley employees, especially in my early years there, seemed like a pretty right-wing bunch. They were well paid, had been around a while, and many had managed to buy good homes out in the suburbs and exurbs. They definitely thought of themselves as an elite, a cut above your average industrial worker.

I hired on a couple of weeks before the ’88 election and the political preferences, insofar as people expressed them, were pro-Republican and anti-Dukakis. This was in contrast, for instance, to General Electric, where the sentiment in the ’80 and ’84 elections was pro-Democratic for the most part.

It seemed to me that a lot of the pro-Republican sentiment at Harley was motivated by cultural concerns, especially things like gun rights. I remember one anonymous guy was always sticking up anti-gun control flyers in the men’s locker room. Management kept tearing them down. Then, to deter this, the guy stuck razor blades behind his flyers. One of the managers cut his fingers pretty bad.

Over the years I’ve noticed that political sentiment at Harley has tended back toward the Democratic Party camp, although this is nowhere near as widespread as it was in the working class as a whole back in the sixties and seventies. During the uproar over Act 10 in 2011, there was a lot of anti-Scott Walker sentiment, although this was by no means unanimous. I retired from H-D in 2012, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the workforce was for Trump in a big way in 2016 even if the union (the United Steel Workers) was for Clinton.

Another thing about the Harley “mystique” is that the stereotypical rider is white and male. The workforce at Harley when I started did not really reflect this; there were many female and minority workers and this diversity has only increased over the years. The company realizes that in order to keep viable it need to broaden its aging customer base — hence efforts to reach out to younger riders, women, African-Americans, and Latinos, with mixed success.

Like most big US corporations, H-D management has actively recruited female and nonwhite workers and promotes “diversity awareness” on the job. During the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing there was a big push by the company to “educate” the workforce about sexual harassment. Among other things, “girly calendars” at work stations, which used to be ubiquitous, were no longer tolerated. Open expressions of racism are also not tolerated. I didn’t even see racist graffiti in the locker room (this was all over the place when I was on the railroad and at GE).

JA

What’s the union’s presence inside the plant?

JH

When I started at H-D, the shop-floor and some skilled-trades workforce in Milwaukee had been represented since the thirties by the Allied Industrial Workers, which merged with the United Paperworkers in 1994, which in turn merged with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in 1999 to form PACE, which finally merged with the USW in 2005.

For many years, industrial relations at Harley, at least in Milwaukee, were marked by labor-management “cooperation” whereby frictions were supposedly kept at a minimum. This was later formalized as an official “partnering” agreement between management and the unions. This was recently ended.

Grievances were kept at a minimum. There was never a strike at Harley’s Milwaukee facilities while I was there, although there were a couple at the York, PA plant.

When Harley opened facilities outside of Milwaukee in Tomahawk, WI, Kansas City, MI, and York, it didn’t try to prevent union organization there; in fact when it opened the Kansas City facility back in the nineties there was a sweetheart deal whereby the IAM was allowed to represent workers from the get-go. The union leadership in Milwaukee most of the time I was there was lovey-dovey with management; there were disputes from time to time, but they were settled for the most part amicably.

An incident that I personally experienced will give you an idea what this was like: I fell asleep during one of the bullshit “employee development” meetings that management used to subject us to. My union steward (whose dad was a former president of the local) was at the meeting and actually reported me to my supervisor, who didn’t even care (he thought those meetings were bullshit too). This was too much even for my committeeman, who forced the steward to apologize to me (the steward later went into management himself and was actually a better supervisor than union steward).

Lately labor-management relations at Harley have settled into a more confrontational mode as management has increasingly taken a hard line. For instance, in 2010 the company forced a concessionary contract on the unions under threat of moving work out of Wisconsin. The union and membership were blindsided by this and felt they had no alternative but to acquiesce to management’s demands. I remember the union president at the time, a really nice guy named Mike Masik, was really apologetic about it, calling the company offer a “shit sandwich.” That concessionary contract passed by a narrow margin. It was under these circumstances that I retired in 2012; they wanted to incentivize older workers to leave, so those retiring early got to keep the more generous health care plan that was in effect under the old contract.

Finally, on the question of tariffs: it wouldn’t surprise me at all if sentiment at H-D is in favor of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. In the short term, these will probably benefit workers in basic steel and aluminum. But they have already raised the cost of the finished metals for companies like Harley.

Moreover, retaliatory tariffs by the EU, China, and others have had the effect of raising the cost of H-D motorcycles overseas. As the US market is basically flat the company has increasingly sought to increase its overseas market share (and in fact Harley-Davidsons are definitely a “status symbol” in these markets). In response, management has announced that it will be shifting production for foreign markets offshore.

Cynics might say that tariffs are only an excuse for a decision that Harley-Davidson made long ago. I myself am not privy to management’s thinking.

Keep in mind that if workers at Harley-Davidson and other companies voted for Trump in 2016 it didn’t necessarily indicate support for his more racist and reactionary positions. People wanted a change and Hillary Clinton stunk on ice. It will be interesting to see if attitudes toward Donald Trump among industrial workers shift as a result of recent developments. Polling indicates that his support in the industrial Midwest, the states that put him over the top in the 2016 election, has eroded considerably.

In the last analysis, Harley-Davidson workers, although they may see themselves as a privileged elite, are not immune to the effects of trade wars, economic crises, and the sentiments that are coursing through the working class as a whole. With the recent teachers’ strikes and new combative attitudes, I’m optimistic myself.