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Indianapolis newspaper report blasts RV manufacturing industry

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By Andy Zipser
Okay, class. Today we have a pop quiz—but don’t panic! There’s only one question, and the answer is multiple-choice, so you have at least a 25% chance of getting it right: What do you get when an industry pressures an inadequately staffed and poorly trained workforce into increasing output by almost 50%?

a) A lot of shoddy product.

b) A lot of sick and injured workers.

c) Record industry profits.

d) All of the above.

If you answered d), congratulations! You’ve just described Elkhart, Indiana, which is to recreational vehicles what Detroit once was to automobiles. Four out of every five RVs in the U.S. roll out of Elkhart, an area dominated by three major players the way Detroit was once dominated by Ford, Chrysler and GM: Thor Industries, Forest River and Winnebago Industries. Unlike Detroit, however, Elkhart is union-free in a so-called “right-to-work” state. And unlike Detroit in past decades, Elkhart has been ravaged by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The result, as documented October 19 by the Indianapolis Star in a damning 15,000-word, four-part, multi-media series, is an industry riddled with broken bodies and a record number of recalled RVs, even as the major manufacturers all have been posting unsurpassed revenues and profit margins. COVID drove an unexpected surge in demand for RVs, much of it from first-time buyers who were looking for a safe way to travel. But COVID also decimated the ranks of RV factory workers, even as they were being pushed to increase production by almost 50%.

Inevitable results

Two results were inevitable. One was a volley of COVID-19 complaints to the underfunded, undermanned and industry-friendly Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which responded not with inspections but with requests to employers to submit documents “proving” they were following COVID-19 safety protocols. Indeed, IOSHA’s response was so perfunctory that it physically inspected only 44 of more than 6,000 COVID-related complaints state-wide—the worst inspection rate in the U.S.—including just two in Elkhart County, neither involving major RV makers. The county eventually recorded nearly 700 COVID deaths.

But the Indy Star also found that problems in the RV plants had been brewing long before the epidemic, which the virus only exacerbated. “Workers told Indy Star about injuries from lax safety rules and the fast pace, drug use, unfair pay structures, a disciplinary system that punishes workers for taking sick time, a lack of training, and quality issues with products that leave factories,” the Star reported. “Several RV workers said they and others inside the factories needed daily uppers such as energy drinks, Ritalin or Adderall—even methamphetamine—to keep up with the pace.”

The other predictable result was that as the work pace picked up—one Winnebago employee said he went from working on 16 RVs a day to 36 during the pandemic—the products coming off the line were increasingly substandard. Ron Burdge, an Ohio attorney who has been suing RV manufacturers for years over defective products, told the Star that RV quality had been declining for at least 15 years prior to the pandemic, but took a nosedive once it hit. Record-setting recall numbers bear him out. Companies owned by Thor Industries recalled more than 156,000 RVs this year alone, while Forest River—a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway—recalled nearly 200,000, and Winnebago Industries recalled more than 125,000.

“All are among the highest for each company in the last five years,” the Star reported. “Among the problems that led to recalls: gas leaks, various electrical issues, increased propane pressure and poorly installed awnings.” One example it offered of the life-threatening dangers unwitting RV buyers have been accepting: an Oregon family that purchased a 40-foot Heartland Road Warrior for more than $100,000, only to have it burst into flame in Montana on the return trip home, totaling it and the tow vehicle. The cause appears to have been faulty wiring in the fifth-wheel’s electrical panel, yet as the Star observed, RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work.

Industry response to the Star’s findings, grim as they are, thus far consists either of stonewalling or of denying there is a problem in the first place. Thor Industries responded to the newspaper’s requests for comment by claiming the quality of its units had actually improved, even as it was making more of them, as evidenced by a lower level of warranty claims—without acknowledging not just this year’s 156,000 recalls, but the 371,384 recalls it had in 2021. Forest River, meanwhile, didn’t respond at all to the Star’s requests for comment, while Winnebago declined to answer the newspaper’s questions about quality issues.

The industry seems to hope the Indy Star’s series will disappear

The industry overall seems to be hoping the Star’s blockbuster series will sink out of sight. RV PRO, an online site “for the RV professional,” ran a terse and nonspecific news item about the series on the day it was published, much of it devoted to quoting an equally nonspecific response from the RV Industry Association (RVIA), the trade association for RV manufacturers. Lamenting that it had been answering the Star’s questions for nearly a year, “emphasizing the high priority the RV industry places on workplace safety and the safety of our products,” the RVIA insisted that “protecting the safety of these valued employees is of paramount importance to our industry.”

RVIA’s own website, however, has none of that. Indeed, at this writing, the RVIA website makes no mention at all of the Indy Star story and its withering critique.

Putting an ironic frosting on the cake, so to speak, it must be noted that Winnebago Industries held a previously scheduled earnings call at 10 a.m. October 19, even as the Star’s report was being published online. Business was gang-busters, financial investors and analysts were told: fourth-quarter net revenues were up 14%, year over year, for a gross profit of $210.4 million. Net revenues for the year were $5 billion, for a record gross margin of 18.7%.

No questions were asked—and no information was given—about workforce or production issues. Chief financial officer Bryan Hughes, however, did offer the observation that “the company and our culture are successful because all our employees care deeply about our end customers, strategic business partners and each other.”

Read the story at the Indy Star

RELATED STORY IN THIS SERIES

Shoddy work. Unhappy buyers. A near-death experience. When the RV lifestyle goes wrong

Read it here.


More from Andy:

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.

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By Chuck Woodbury, publisher
Most periodicals, whether print or online, rely on advertising for funding. At RVtravel.com we're different. Increasingly, more of our support comes from individuals — readers like you who appreciate our honesty, integrity and commitment to truth. We do not accept "sponsored" articles that "bribe us" to write about a business or product in favorable ways (you would not believe how common this is!). Aren't we worth more to you than "free"? If so please consider donating, no matter how modest. Your support helps us continue to write honestly without pressure to "sell out" just for money. Thank you! —CW

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73 Comments
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philippo
1 month ago

Many other countries don’t seem to suffer from the blatent “cooperate greed” that plagues the US. Try “Northern Lite” for a high quality and well constructed truck camper. Built in Canada…and I have one.

Brian Hibshman
1 month ago

If you are looking for a quality Rv, Alliance is producing top of the line product with an unmatched customer service incase anything may be wrong. Alliance has a superb crew of workers and the pay is phenomenal. Alliance Rv!!!!

SLR
1 month ago

Anyone following the RV arena knows that poor construction is standard, and anyone buying a new rig will have to spend big bucks to fix it, which is why newbies are advised to buy used. That alone tells you that the work is shoddy and the industry cares more about profits than quality. And any company that prioritizes profit over quality likely also cares little for safety, working conditions, employee health, etc. None of this is surprising to anyone who has ever spent any time working for companies that care only about the bottom line above all else. It’s also not surprising to see that a bunch of pro-RV industry folks swooped in here, likely at the request of their bosses, to defend the industry. What did surprise me was this phrase: “… RV workers don’t need a license or certification to do electrical work.” OMG, that one fact alone should be grounds to regulate the entire industry.

Rv Worker
1 month ago

Such a lie….we were shut down just like everyone else

Shaz
1 month ago
Reply to  Rv Worker

I was wondering how come the world was shut down during Covid but not the RV industry. Such dross!

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  Rv Worker

If you (i.e., the RV industry) were “shut down just like everyone else”, where did the 430,412 new units shipped in 2020 and the 600,240 (a record, BTW) new units shipped in 2021 come from? Stats from RVIA, BTW. Hmmm? –Diane

Spouse to RV
1 month ago
Reply to  RV Staff

I can tell you. They ran us ragged took down piece rate to make up for the months we were shut down. It financial rocked the most of us! Unemployment didn’t cover our price rate, so we were left holding nothing to pay bills. Than it opened back up and instead of getting home @2 many of us went home at 5pm getting chewed out by management for not dishing out double the units to make up. What’s sad is you lumped ALL RV industry’s when there some who didn’t do what you claim in theses articles. They forced many us in already 110 heat to wear mask working in tight conditions….

Now they have back logs, unfair pay? It’s called staying where you apply. No talking about the Plant hoping, and how many of the ones who care are saddled with newbies who just want 100% piece rate/and leave early but not work for it. No substance on how the ones that have been there 10 plus years are forced to take up the work load from the newbies who straight lie.

Honestly the writer has one view and one only, that ALL Are guilty despite the many that aren’t. There for sure some bad ones, all you have to do is ask how long that leadership has worked there to find out which ones are shoddy. Locals know the rules if there isn’t 10-15 year vet working there get out…

Simply join RV job Facebook group and you’ll see the many hoping

J Johnson
1 month ago

Like the Enquirer writers, Andy grabs a thread of truth and sensationalizes it, omitting facts that provide a more balanced understanding. I can see why you support him- this hyperbole “sells papers”.

Gary
1 month ago

Looks like losing 80lbs did her some good.

J Johnson
1 month ago

Andy would make a good National Enquirer writer.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  J Johnson

Hi, J. Except Andy speaks/writes the truth, so the Enquirer probably wouldn’t keep him around very long. 🙄 –Diane

justin hardman
1 month ago

his point isn’t lost, but its very cringe. not sure how Elkhart was more effected than Detroit with covid? additionally tries to say works couldn’t keep up with the pace with out uppers such as energy drinks. am i the only one noticing that Union Auto workers have been drinking coffee and energy drinks for decades. the Auto plants around me were riddled with meth users and other drugs. he doesnt understand the corrilation between demand and profit

Darryl
1 month ago

Elkhart. Like Detroit. Is about to become an industry of the past, and once again. it is by their own hand. Unlike Detroit. Nobody needs an RV to go to work, or grocery shopping. I don’t think they thought this out too well.

Vick Barker
1 month ago

No new news here – not to RVer’s anyway. The media outlet, a newspaper, sets the tone for the piece within the first two paragraphs though with “union-free” and “so-called ‘right-to-work state.'” So Andy should then provide some evidence non-union workers in a right-to-work state have a quid pro quo relationship to production quality, or, lack of it, in the pandemic-period RV industry. More bilge water crap!

Donald N Wright
1 month ago

I have a solution. RVTravel has a list of qualified attorneys willing to help you.

Jamie McLaughlin
1 month ago

Do they really? Can you lead me to a link? I have reached out to a few but none willing to take on Camping World.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago

Hi, Jamie. For “lemon” RVs we recommend Attorney Ron Burdge, but I don’t know if he would handle anything concerning Camping World. Here’s the link to his website and maybe he can help, or give you someone to contact: https://rvlemonlaw.com Good luck! 😀 –Diane

Clint
1 month ago

So Andy, which Labor Union do you freelance for?? Your article is a carbon copy of the ones that are written about Amazon, Starbucks, etc…. The same old diatribe about injured workers and corporate profits. Of course if the employees vote to Unionize and pour millions of dollars of their wages into Union dues all these problems will miraculously disappear.

C Botner
1 month ago
Reply to  Clint

Clint, I’m sorry to say but you speak from ignorance on this subject.

Tina W
1 month ago
Reply to  Clint

The worker’s conditions would improve. But what is really needed are REGULATIONS of the RV industry. You know that dirty word that a certain political party never wants to happen because of the almighty profits? Well screw those. Instead we will allow RV manufacturers to build units with electricity WITHOUT ELECTRICAL PERMITTING. Holy hell. This country reaps what it sows. I just wish I didn’t have to be on the road with those who buy ticking time bombs.

Drew
1 month ago

Thank you for this article and the Indy Star piece. Although I suspected many of the poor conditions mentioned existed, it was sobering to hear all the personal accounts of injuries and poor conditions. Again, thank you RV Travel.

Jeff Craig
1 month ago

Gosh…. If only there was real competition between RV manufacturers like there was in the 90’s, instead of three major companies making over 80% of all the nameplates. The loss of quality in RVs can be resolved with better adhesives, more automation/3D printed walls, and standardization of electrical looms and mechanical systems. Some of the newer manufacturers have figured this out. The ‘Big Three’ seem to be more concerned with Wall Street, instead of the people who buy their products on Main Street.

Shop accordingly.

MrDisaster
1 month ago

They did point out that warrantee claims are down. Could that be because the rigs sit at the dealer’s shop for months on end waiting for the initial claim to be approved while the warranty runs out?

Calvin
1 month ago

Thanks for sharing this. I am surprised the RV industry’s big bucks didn’t suppress this article and I hope there are more coming. I don’t think they purposely make junk, but money blinds even good people (Warren Buffet).
We need a clearing house for RV owners to report issues similar to Consumer Reports (not what it use to be). It is easy for them to deny the problem when there is little data. We need to get over the attitude: “This is just the way it is when you own an RV.” What other consumer product has this issue? If the Japanese or Koreans would start building RVs Elkhart and Sugarcreek would be history.

Charles Jeffery
1 month ago
Reply to  Calvin

The Japanese did make the American car manufactures improve the quality of their units back in the 70s and 80s’. Can you imagine what a well designed, well produced, with quality control, a dealer network that is interested in actually fixing the product, and being compensated fairly, along with a 3 year bumper to bumper warranty, would do to the current RV manufacturers?

The RV industry has worked hard to get the reputation they have!

Cookie P
1 month ago

One thing that the article didn’t mention was the Amish work force at some of the plants. The Amish have a serious work ethic and are incredibly fast workers. We have had several Amish crews work on different aspects of our sticks and bricks. Normally the Amish don’t do shoddy work. (I live near Elkhart County in Indiana.)

Sharon B
1 month ago
Reply to  Cookie P

You are right on that one Cookie. Yes, the Amish have serious work ethics and produce nice results. Everything seems like it fits using decent material.
I have been living in a Keystone Laredo fifth wheel after selling my house a few years ago. In every room I have a few fire extinguishers, smoke detector, and a Sentry Safe for important papers. I’m always concerned about these paper rigs and fires.

Ashley
1 month ago
Reply to  Cookie P

Amen!!!! It’s not all workers. It may be a {bleeped} show, but not all….

Derik Smith
1 month ago

Junction City, Oregon used to be the RV manufacturing capitol of the west, until the 2008 recession. And the working conditions were very similar as those in the article, minus the COVID 19 propaganda. Plus Oregon is not a right to work state.

It appears that the writer of the article is pushing a greater agenda than the need for the RV manufacturers to increase the quality of their products, and treat the employees fairly?

It’s looks like this article’s underlying goal is to promote anti- corporation, and pro socialism government agenda to me, thru the channel of an emotional issue that affects all RV owners.

Will you pease take a closer look into the real issues involved in major manufacturing production under the current economic and governmental conditions in the industry, before forming your opinion?

Dean
1 month ago
Reply to  Derik Smith

Well stated , Derik!

John Irvine
1 month ago
Reply to  Derik Smith

Covid propaganda? Something over 1,000,000 deaths.

Jeff Craig
1 month ago
Reply to  Derik Smith

“…underlying goal is to promote anti- corporation, and pro socialism government agenda to me, thru the channel of an emotional issue that affects all RV owners.”

What the deuce?? Are you visiting from an alternate reality or just guzzling from the teat of OAN? Inflation is at a 50 year high – but so are corporate profits. That’s not anti-corp, that’s reality. Pro-socialism?? These are workers sacrificing their bodies and their future health (and their families futures) for enough to try and keep a roof over their head – if they can afford one thanks to these companies buying up rentals and jacking up the monthly costs, and homes being build for investors over first time buyers. What we need is MORE STRINGENT oversight and regulation, not less. We don’t need a ‘nanny state’, but we do need companies to realize they are building a $150,000 product for $70,000 and much less if possible.

Seriously, I can’t believe how short sighted some of you ‘consumers’ are.

Bart Mann
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Craig

Derik nailed it Jeff!

Tina W
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Craig

Amen. And RVs aren’t the only thing we aren’t regulating. If you don’t give a {bleeped} about safety, you deserve what happens next. The sad thing is that those of us who do care about safety still have to live with these horrible decisions.

Kevin
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Craig

Jeff Craig you nailed it. Looks like a few Trojan Horses on here.

Zeke Mcfartlym
1 month ago

RVs have always been poorly made. All veterans of the RV lifestyle accept this.
Buy it, fix it, modify it. All in the first year.
Don’t bother the dealer with recalls, fix it yourself. The service dept at the local RV dealer is probably difficult, if not impossible to work with.

Bob Walter
1 month ago

I saw it with my own eyes. They literally throw the RV together trying to make quota. My wife & I toured the Elkhart factories – what a mess. The industry needs to retire the archaic method of piecework pay. No wonder quality is missing. As far as repairs, what a joke! Mine RV spent the entire summer at the repair shop waiting for a carburetor. I’ve been RVing for 20 years, but I’m ready to find a new hobby. @@

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