The Milwaukee Eight’s First Victims

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the new Harley Milwaukee Eight engine and how it was a “clean sheet” engine that Mother Davidson was going to be rolling out in their big bikes in 2017. It’s not without a little irony that on the heels of that announcement, Harley casually dropped the news that they were laying off over 100 workers in their York, Pennsylvania facility.

For those not in the know, of course, York is where they build Touring, Softail, CVO and Trike models … the very same platforms that the Milwaukee Eight is slotted to be installed in in the 2017 model year bikes – due out this month.

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More than a little ironic, I think, when you look at it. Of course, Mother Davidson had to readjust this year’s projections after the second quarter, but the rosy outlook they promised with the introduction of the new engines is not the same that they are employing when they are speaking of laying off employees. I guess it just depends on which press release you read.

Now, lest it be said that the two aren’t related. With a new powerplant, it very well may be that Harley really is running leaner when it comes to the actual labor pool that they need to deploy the Big Eight successfully. In the last decade, though, the fact is that York has been downsized again and again – from 2,000 employees down now to less than 950 (before this round of layoffs). Obviously, the sheer volume of computerization in machining and assembly does reduce the amount of skilled “hands on” labor needed to build a bike that has more computers than carburetors, but we’ve seen this happen time and again in North American manufacturing.

I guess the real irony is that the York plant is one that features Harley’s “Steel Toe” tour for enthusiasts to come and actually get out on the factory floor, especially in the finishing areas where the bikes are actually being assembled. From what I understand the tour is great, but I would suspect that the pall hanging over the folks that work in the plant might be a little bit of a downer for tourists in the next few weeks.

It’s the way of things, I know. Most of us won’t – or can’t – pay for one-off or bespoken goods, so any manufacturer has to look through ways to keep union labor happy and production costs down. Certainly the fact that bike emissions are tightening up is a huge reason for the launch of the new platform, and “clean” assembly and “zero waste” design is the most efficient way to build a product. I just hate that we, the end user, are the ones that inadvertently cause this. Our use of resources, our cost and value beliefs, and where we decide to spend our discretionary income are all factors that both brought out the new engine and put skilled workers out of hard-won jobs at one of the great American companies. Progress cuts both ways, I guess.

I sure hope that we like the engine.

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