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Whirlpool labor practices and the importance of intersectional justice

October 13, 2011

It is increasingly important for organizations and movements for justice to practice inter-sectionality, the “theory that suggests—and seeks to examine how—various socially and culturally constructed categories such as gender, race, class, disability, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality.”

A recent piece of local news provides us with an example of why inter-sectionality is important to practice.

The most recent e-newsletter from MiBiz highlighted the Whirlpool Company’s decision to be part of the “It Gets Better” campaign. Actually, the MiBiz mention was just a hyperlink to a Whirlpool media release, sent out to coincide with National Coming Out Day.

The Whirlpool media release also mentions that the company has scored 100 by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Corporate Equality Index.

We recognize the importance of have basic anti-discrimination practices in the workplace, especially now in Michigan which is considering legislation to broaden the capacity of businesses to fire workers for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

However, we also know that Whirlpool has a long history of unfair treatment of workers and even eliminating hundreds of jobs most recently in Indiana, where the kitchen appliance giant dismissed hundreds of workers. The rational for the jobs cuts was a familiar mantra, the company needed to stay competitive. Labor groups challenged these claims, especially since the company received nearly $20 million from the federal government’s economic stimulus plan.

When workers at the Indiana plant organized to protest the job loss and it was reported that the company engaged in some potentially illegal tactics. In 2008, Whirlpool got rid of 300 workers from its world headquarters in St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, Michigan.

However, job elimination isn’t the only negative thing that Whirlpool engages in. The company has used its political and economic power to influence policies on a national level by its campaign donations. In Michigan, the company throws its weight around with its political connections to Congressman Fred Upton, whose family founded the company nearly 100 years ago.

Closer to home, Whirlpool is notorious for determining the fate of politics in the St. Joseph/Benton Harbor area. Whirlpool has been accused of financing the political campaigns of people on city councils and even the courts.

The Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO) refers to the racial dynamics between Benton Harbor and St. Joseph as a form of apartheid, where Blacks who live in Benton Harbor and excluded from any really economic benefits that mostly White residents of St. Joseph. With the backing of the Whirlpool Corporation, the legal authorities in St. Joseph have targeted one of the organizers with BANCO, Rev. Pinkney. Pinkney has been fighting a legal battle for years and was even sentenced to serve time in jail on bogus charges.

In the past two years there has been an organized boycott of Whirlpool and all its subsidiaries (Amana, Estate, Gladiator Garage Works, Insperience, Jenn-Air, KitchenAid, Magic Chef, Maytag, Roper, Acros, Inglis, Bauknecht, Brastemp, Admiral, IKEA appliances, some Kenmore). The boycott is a response to the latest efforts by Whirlpool to take property along the lakeshore in Benton Harbor to develop it for a golf course and numerous resorts.

Considering these unjust practices by Whirlpool, their decision to be part of the “It Gets Better” campaign seems less significant. We are not saying that this doesn’t have some potential benefit, but what it can do is have the potential to divide grassroots efforts for justice and in this case create tensions and even a divide between the LGBTQ community and the labor and African American communities.

More than ever these grassroots groups need each other if we are to truly challenge corporate power or the power of the 1%. Whirlpool would not be able to eliminate jobs or treat the Black community in Benton Harbor with distain as easily if the LGBTQ community formed an alliance with these groups to further challenge the company’s human rights record. Indeed, we can not afford these kinds of divisive tactics by the corporate elite if we are to ever achieve any kind of lasting justice or equity.

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