Tannery workers see little future in their profesion, hope for fairness

Harvey White, a second-generation tannery worker who himself has put in 37 years at Wolverine, stood at the annual Wolverine World Wide shareholders meeting on Thursday, April 23. Outside his co-workers were picketing for a fair settlement after losing their jobs as the tannery closed after 125 years in operation.

He said the company’s CEO himself explained that 95 percent of all of America’s tanneries have closed to move operations to Asia to be close to the manufacturing. “He apologized for having to do it and seemed very sincere.” White said. “I’m not saying I’m on his side.”

On the picket line, former employees were less restrained. One said she was told the tannery workers would no longer have access to Camp Wolverine, apparently a camp on the Muskegon River, or receive shoe discounts, since they did not retire from the company.

Jeff Heyboer was out with former co-workers, although he will not be affected by the settlement. He was a four-year employee who crossed picket lines to take his job and now joined that line to show support. Heyboer was a supervisor who was let go with no notice last fall. He said he was shocked and near tears.

“I thought that job was what I would do the rest of my life,” he said. “You looked around and saw people with 25, 30  years in and you didn’t think that job was going to go. If I had my say, I’d tell people not to buy Wolverine shoes because they are buying a Chinese product.”

White hopes the settlement reflects the prospects the tannery workers face. “There is nothing out there. We are skilled tannery workers, but they shut down all the tanneries.”

Heyboer noted that many of the long-timers will struggle to find new employment. “They are too young to retire, but too old to hire. Where are they going to find to work in this economy at that age? We expected to be there the rest of our lives.”

White said he was assured at the meeting that a settlement will be reached within a few weeks that will be acceptable to all. He said shareholders appeared concerned to see the picketers, but many waved as they left the meeting.

“I’m feeling hopeful, but we’ll see,” he said. “Sometimes when I’m feeling hopeful I buy a lottery ticket, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to win.”

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