‘Sure is sad about Harley-Davidson’

    The following is a conversation, the likes of which could be taking place at any corner tavern in Milwaukee today.

    Cal: “Sure is sad about Harley-Davidson.”
    Eddie: “What are ya talkin’ about? Those union fat cats always make too much money.”
    Cal: “Excuse me? Those union guys are skilled machinists. They take pride in their work. They even buy the bikes they make. That’s Milwaukee Iron right there.”
    Eddie: “Hey, the company’s just doing what it has to do to survive. That’s the brave new world we live in. It’s a global economy now, and if these guys don’t want to take a pay cut, those jobs will go south to workers who will.”
    Cal: “You are right about that. But it’s still sad.”
    Eddie: “What’s so sad about it?”
    Cal: “Well, it’s sad on many levels. But most of all, it’s sad what is happening to the American middle class. There was a time when the middle class could achieve the American dream. Here was the deal. If you worked hard and saved your money, you could afford to send your kids to college, you could maybe afford a little cottage up North and you received a nice pension when you retired.”
    Eddie: “Well, the party’s over.”
    Cal: “You may be right about that, my friend.”
    Eddie: “The unions stand for everything that is wrong with America. They protect the weakest and most inefficient workers.”
    Cal: “That’s a lie. Unions built this country. This country was literally built with union labor. Furthermore, were it not for the unions, we would not have weekends, vacations, safe workplaces or child labor restrictions. And what’s more, they more money those union workers made, the more they spent, supporting other jobs in the economy.”
    Eddie: “Well, your side is losing. Big Time.”
    Cal: “You’re right again. But that’s nothing to celebrate. I wonder if the CEO of Harley and the othe top brass will take any pay cut to share the same pain they’re inflicting on the rest of their workers.”
    Eddie: “Well, at least the jobs are staying here in Wisconsin.”
    Cal: “Yes. And the new ‘casual hire’ jobs at Harley will pay about half as much and will provide no benefits. In effect, they will not be able to afford to buy the very motorcycles they will be manufacturing. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?”
    Eddie: “Again, at least the company’s staying here.”
    Cal: “Yes, but it’s not the same company. This is no longer your father’s Harley-Davidson. The corporate culture, the soul of Harley, the stuff that makes the company special, the stuff that makes the company American, is now severely diminished. This reduces the Harley experience to a mere commodity. What makes the new Harley any different or any better than any other motorcycle on the market?”
    Eddie: “I don’t have an answer to that.”
    Cal: “The baby boom generation bought the whole Harley lifestyle thing. They even put the company’s name in their tattoos. The younger generations are not buying it.”
    Eddie: “I know. Who can afford to spend so much on a motorcycle these days?”
    Cal: “Sure is sad about Harley-Davidson.”

    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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