The Democratic Party and labor leaders spent Thursday afternoon reminding Connecticut voters about what happened at a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania once owned by Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley.
Foley, a private equity manager, owned T.B. Wood’s Sons Co. in Chambersburg, Pa. for 17 years before selling it to its competitor, Altra Holdings Inc., in 2007 for $94 million.
During the time he owned the company, which was a power transmission device manufacturer, news accounts detailed an ugly battle in the early 1990s with 260 members of the United Auto Workers Union Local 695. The vote to reject a contract, which included a 50-cents-per-hour pay raise, and to go on strike was decided by a slim 152-140 margin.
A news article in the Baltimore Sun described the lives of union workers on strike and the hard choices they had to make. The 1992 story said a few strikers lost their homes, declared bankruptcy, or separated from their wives.
“The union doesn’t always represent a rank-and-file well,” Foley said Thursday outside the Middlesex YMCA. “In this case they didn’t and they put their members at risk. The company did what it could under the circumstances to protect the jobs of those employees.”
Julie Kushner, president of the United Auto Workers in Connecticut, said she doesn’t know the workers who were involved in the strike at TB Wood’s Sons Co., but based on the duration of the strike it’s easy to conclude that “they had something very important to them they felt they had to stand up for.”
She also cautioned that labor unions are not against good businessmen.
“What we’re opposed to is someone who profits off of destroying lives and destroying businesses,” Kushner said. “. . . He can walk down Main Street in any town in Connecticut, but that doesn’t mean he really understands and knows who we are and who the middle class are.”
Foley spent his afternoon touring a businesses in Middletown, including a YMCA, a small fruit stand, a bank, and a cupcake shop.
Kushner said Foley should have to prove to voters that he will focus on moving the entire state forward and not just businesses. She said there’s also a disconnect between Foley and the middle class.
Foley said he doesn’t remember how much he sold T.B. Wood’s Sons Co. for, but he remembers that the company lost almost $12 million as a result of the strike.
The Irish Times and The Associated Press reported that Foley was the largest shareholder and chairman of the company when it was sold at $24.80 per share. Foley owned 1.6 million shares, which means he would have grossed about $40 million on the sale.
The union leaders also wondered how someone wouldn’t remember making $40 million in a business deal.
“I don’t understand what this has to do with that,” Foley said. “. . . This is a union that failed their workers. So this is a story I’m happy to talk about as long as people want to talk about it.”
Kushner said that if she made $40 million she guarantees she would not forget how much money she made.
“That just shows the real divide between Tom Foley and the working people in the state of Connecticut,” Kushner said outside a union hall in Higganum.
If he’s elected governor, Foley has said he wouldn’t seek to change the current deal the state has with its public employee unions. But he also said he wants to see Connecticut have a “Wisconsin moment.”
The Wisconsin quote has been repeated often by labor advocates who interpret it as a desire to see collective bargaining rights scaled back as they were in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker was elected. Foley maintains that he meant he was hoping to see Connecticut repeat Wisconsin’s state government flip from Democratic to Republican control.
“When a union recommends to its members that they go on strike, they put their members at risk of their jobs and benefits,” Foley said in a statement Thursday. “TB Woods worked hard to make sure the bad advice a union gave its members had the least impact possible on the company’s workers. I am neither pro-union nor pro non-union, I am pro-worker.”
But Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Lori Pelletier wondered how Foley’s handling of the labor situation at TB Woods would make him a good governor.
“If this is his example as a businessman, how can we think it will be any different when he’s governor?” Pelletier said.
Asked what he learned from the experience, Foley said “some circumstances in the business world, some circumstances in government — people, leaders have to make tough decisions and those are very tough decisions we had to make. We didn’t have any choice. Those decisions were handed to us by others and we did what we could.”
He said he felt the outcome was good for the company and the workers.