VI. Hard Times - 1983-1998. “With Whirlpool getting out of the compressor business, we expect to see more and more foreign compressors in U.S. room units.” -William E. Macbeth, President of Tecumseh Products, 1983.
By the early 1980s, employment had slipped to under 100 individuals for the first time since the company's founding. In 1982, as a part of an executive consolidation at Tecumseh, Phil Wood was promoted to Group Manufacturing Manager - Compressors. He was in charge of the operations at the Marion, Somerset, Acklin, and Tueplo plants and his office was moved to Tecumseh's headquarters.
Harold Krueger, a second-generation, 37-year employee, was named Acklin Plant Manager. Under Krueger a series of meetings called Employee Information Conferences was established in an effort to open communication between the employees and management.
The Acklin Press, a 37-year-old publication, ended its run 1984 due to budget cutbacks.
In 1983, Krueger announced the recall of 51 hourly and 4 salaried employees. These additions doubled the number of employees at Acklin, for a time. Tecumseh also approved $316,200 in capital improvements used for improved equipment and building expansion.
There was a shift in Tecumseh Product’s production policy in 1983. The company had long held to the ideal of using solely American labor for compressors sold in the United States. But when Whirlpool stepped out of the business, a gaping hole was left that was quickly filled by a flood of cheaper foreign imports that could be produced abroad and shipped to America for a third of the price of domestically produced units. As a result, Tecumseh Products began to turn increasingly towards overseas production in an effort to cut costs and remain competitive.
The previous advantages held by American firms like Tecumseh over foreign companies were rapid technological improvements and highly trained and efficient workers. But as William Macbeth, Tecumseh’s president said in a 1983 interview, “engineering improvements [were] not enough to make a difference.” Technology involved in the production of compressors had by this time become so finely honed that these improvements were hardly enough to make a difference between units, and cost became the deciding factor. As a result, Tecumseh began to shift some of its production overseas.
As a result of these shifts, Acklin’s output and profits began to drop. The company’s financial situation continued to decline, operating in the red for much of the mid-1980s. In February of 1986, the issue came to a head when Acklin’s 110 hourly employees went on strike. Tecumseh Products and Acklin’s management seriously considered shutting down the plant and refused to give in to the worker’s demands for increased wages.
The strike ended after two weeks on February 22, 1986 without any wage concessions on the part of the company. They were able to reach an agreement with the union, however, reducing the number of job classifications at the plant from over 35 to 13. This shift allowed workers greater flexibility, reducing their downtime and effectively increasing their pay. Previously, after finishing their assigned tasks, workers would remain idle for several hours, since the high number of job classifications prevented them from doing other work they were capable of.
The company during the mid-1980s was not profitable, but by following these work rule changes and “a greater effort,” Acklin “reduced costs and was able to add jobs,” Ray Cox, Acklin General Manager, said in a 1988 Toledo Blade article. By the late 1980s, the company saw the recall of 30 of their laid off employees, increasing the workforce to 139 hourly positions. A heat wave during the summer of 1988 depleted supplies of air-conditioners around the country and increased Acklin’s production from 2.5 million in 1987 to nearly 3 million throughout 1989. Acklin’s business was also increasing during this time due to a weak dollar and strong international sales.
The company during these years also began a dedicated effort to find work, in Ray Cox’s words “from other companies that use compressors or any others that use stamping that requires deep-draw stamping expertise.” These efforts, however, were largely unsuccessful. There hadn't been a sales department at Acklin since the merger with Tecumseh Products in 1954. As a result, getting new contracts was rather difficult and the entirety of Acklin's output remained with Tecumseh Products.
B. Less tension, less business
When Bob Housch was assigned by Tecumseh Products to take over the position of Acklin's Plant Manager, many employees felt that this marked a change in the relationship between management in the front office and the union workers on the floor. Housch was a retired production operator who had brought troubled plants through difficult times in the past. He emphasized cooperation between the union and management, hosting seminars and forming teams that included both union and management employees.
In 1992, as part of Housch's new commitment to better employee relations, he invited the Cumberland Group to perform an anonymous survey of 65 of Acklin's employees. Asking a wide range of questions on a variety of topics, the survey was able to uncover the deep tensions and dissatisfaction that ran through the company. Among the problems described was a sense of tension between the management and the workers and a reluctance for accountability at all levels. Acklin employees felt that they were being held to higher standards than other Tecumseh divisions.
The employees also noted a lack of long term goals or planning and felt that the plant was operating on a day-by-day mentality. They were concerned by a perceived lack of leadership over the past decade and felt that this had contributed to a low sense of pride in Acklin and in Acklin- produced products.
As a result of this survey and efforts made on both sides, things began to improve between the union employees and the Tecumseh management representatives present at Acklin. However, Tecumseh Product's corporate management felt that Bob Housch was, according to a union committee member at that time, "too easy on us."
Despite these improvements in management-employee relations, economic pressure continued to weigh heavily on Acklin in particular and the metal working industry at large. Decreasing profits, increased automation, and ever-increasing globalization of the industrial labor market continued through this period. Tecumseh's worldwide divisions were quickly becoming increasingly important to the company's bottom line, just as foreign-made compressors continued to undersell domestically produced items.
In the fall of 1998, Tecumseh Products told Acklin employees to take a $3.75 per hour pay cut or face closure of the plant. In a vote on the proposed contract, Acklin employees turned it down by an overwhelming 106-3 margin. They refused, as one employee put it, to "take chances of getting fingers and hands cut off for McDonald's wages," continuing, "when we were in negotiations I went by a McDonalds in Wauseon and it said 'Now Hiring, Full Benefits, $8 an hour.' Well, we didn't even have full benefits."
At the time of the decision, Acklin employed a little more than 100 employees. In November of 1998 half were laid off, leaving an equal number to ride out what looked to be the end of Acklin Stamping.