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Volvo Workers in Virginia Vote Down Bad Contract by 90 Percent—Again

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Jane slaughter (@Tracey_barmaid) | Twitter

Auto workers at Volvo’s truck plant in southwest Virginia have just voted down a concessionary contract by 90 percent—for the second time. Now they’re back on strike.

“The International union has been down here twice for town halls,” said Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2069 member Rhonda Sisk. “Each time we say ‘take it back, it’s garbage,’ and they just say they think it’s a good contract, but they don’t say why.”

The first vote came May 16, after a two-week strike that began April 17. Many workers were dismayed when their union sent them back to work and said they would be told later what had been bargained. When terms were finally revealed, they were outraged.

Apparently undeterred by the resounding rejection, union officials brought back a second agreement just four days later that workers described as nearly identical to the first. They voted no June 6, and officials announced the resumption of the strike at noon today.

“They made a billion-dollar profit off our labor and we got nothing,” said Sisk, a three-year assembler in the chassis department.

GET RID OF TWO-TIER

The 2,900 members had voted by 98 percent to authorize the first strike. Though union officials were close-mouthed about bargaining goals, rank and filers wanted to get rid of the two-tier wage system they had worked under for years.

The strike was solid, shutting down the largest Volvo truck manufacturing facility in the world.

It wasn’t easy finding out the first tentative agreement’s contents. A “highlights” pamphlet was distributed, but unlike the UAW’s practice at the Big 3 automakers, the entire proposed agreement was not put online. Workers could get a copy at the union hall, and soon the thick document was brought into the plant and copied.

One of the biggest insults in the first agreement, according to Sisk, was raising the cost of health care. Out-of-pocket costs would rise by the end of the contract to $2,000 a year, with a $4,000 deductible.

Under the current contract, workers are divided into “core”—those with more than 15 years’ seniority—and “competitive.” New hires start at $16.77 and get a dollar more each year for five years, up to a max of $21.77—far less than the core top pay of $30.02. Under the rejected agreement, though there are raises, “tiers are there to stay,” Sisk said. New hires in one assembler classification, for example, would get to $27 by 2026.

Language would have allowed union officials to agree to an unspecified Alternative Work Schedule such as “four 10-hour days, alternate shift operations, or other alternate schedules based on the needs of the business.” Time-and-a-half pay over eight hours in a day would be gone. These alternative schedules are popular with management at the Big 3 automakers—and very unpopular with many auto workers.

Another clause would have made workers take 40 hours of vacation in order to use FMLA.

A worker in the second-tier, “competitive” classification, who asked that his name not be used, said he wants a contract like the UAW’s pact at Mack Trucks (also owned by Volvo) in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maryland, which “is like 40 times better.” That contract was won after a strike in fall 2019. He wants to see all workers reach top pay after three years of work. (In the 1970s, before the era of concessions began, new hires reached top pay after 90 days.)

HOW THEY REJECTED

A private Facebook group with 1,900 members was part of angry members’ organizing but, Sisk said, “most of it was just sitting and talking with people who had been there longer than we had.” There were no leaflets; members were forbidden to campaign during the vote at the union hall (where there was a police presence all day), nor were they allowed to observe the vote count.

One high-seniority worker posted a video of himself sitting on a toilet. He has cut up the tentative agreement and taped it around a toilet paper roll. A voice asks, “Dad, what do you think of the contract?” Another worker posted a picture of people burning the tentative agreement.

International officials tried to sell the first contract. “We thought Ray Curry would be there, who negotiated our contract,” Sisk said, “but he did not show up.” Curry is the UAW Secretary-Treasurer and head of the Heavy Truck Department; insiders say he will head the union’s “Administration Caucus” ticket when officers are elected next year.

At a contract information meeting, Dave Snyder of the International’s Heavy Truck Department became so exasperated with Sisk’s questions that he told her, “If you don’t like the agreement, you can go work somewhere else.”

“That blew up,” Sisk said.

The “competitive” worker said local officials did not campaign for the first contract. “It feels like it’s more the International than anything,” he said. “They’re playing more of a role than they should. The union is saying we gotta answer to the International, and whatever the International wants to do, they’ll do it. And we had no say or fight in that.”

To try to ensure a fair vote, workers encouraged each other to bring a black pen to mark their ballots. (When they had elected the bargaining team, officials told them to use pencil, and many workers think that election was fraudulent.) They took pictures of their “no” ballots alongside their company badges; Sisk—who had predicted the 90 percent no vote well before it happened—said that hundreds of such pictures were posted to Facebook.

On the first day back in the plant after the first vote, officials circulated a survey asking members’ top five issues to fix. “Everybody’s saying, ‘It’s more than five!’” Sisk said. “They’re filling up the page front and back.”

“You can take that piece of trash back to the table and let them know we are not weak pushovers and if they want to continue using the best truck builders in the world as they call us then they can give us a fair contract!!” said one worker on the local’s Facebook page.

When some workers began a petition to recall the discredited bargaining team, using union bylaws, officials threatened that their move was illegal, accused them of union-busting, and called them communists.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Ohio Auto Parts Workers Strike to Unionize

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Update, February 1: The workers ended their strike January 30, without having won union recognition. They plan to petition for a union authorization election with the National Labor Relations Board. —Editors

Workers at an auto parts factory in Norwalk, Ohio, are reviving a classic tactic—they’re eight days into a walkout to demand that their employer recognize their union.

The strikers work for Borgers, a German-owned Tier 1 auto parts supplier, meaning they supply parts directly to auto manufacturers. The factory produces wheel well and trunk liners for companies like General Motors, Ford, Volvo, BMW, and Tesla.

An overwhelming majority, 170 workers, signed union cards with the SEIU affiliate Workers United and demanded recognition—but the company ignored them. So on January 21, they walked out.

Norwalk, west of Cleveland and south of Detroit, has been hit hard by deindustrialization and plant closings. The Borgers facility sits across the street from a former Janesville Acoustics plant that closed in 2013, where hundreds of workers were members of Workers United.

‘I’VE NEVER BEEN TREATED SO BADLY’

The Borgers strikers describe a workplace rife with sexual harassment, racism, safety problems, and arbitrary management decisions.

Tiffany Slagle works as a quality technician, checking that parts are up to standard and that machines are operating properly. “I’ve never been treated so badly in my life,” Slagle said. “People grabbing at me, pulling my hair. Nothing happens to them because they’re close to management.”

Supervisors and those close to them also wield the power of job advancement. “If you’re a woman, your only shot for getting an improvement is to get involved with a supervisor,” said Joe Krout, a material handler and forklift driver. He said the “good old boys culture” allows endemic racism and sexual harassment to continue.

Jacob Gonzales works on Felt Line 1 as a forklift driver. His first day on the job, a supervisor asked if he should refer to Gonzales as one racial slur or another. “I was taken aback,” said Gonzales. “I was afraid for my job. Was this how it was going to be? This guy’s been there for five years.”

ARBITRARY WAGE RATES

Workers say that safety issues aren’t taken seriously in the facility. Gonzales talked about a time one of his co-workers lost the tip of his finger in an accident.

“In the immediate aftermath, management started making jokes, snickering,” said Gonzales. “This guy just lost a portion of his body, hadn’t even been taken to the hospital yet, and they were saying, ‘Well I guess he won’t be picking his nose with that finger.’”

The strikers say their wages are far too low for the work that they do, and are arbitrary. Wages and pay increases are merit-based, which in practice means they are inconsistent and based on favoritism. 

Krout makes $14.50 per hour—higher than most. Some workers get as little as $13. He previously earned $19 an hour as a forklift driver in a nearby unionized factory, and said he doesn’t know of anywhere else nearby that pays forklift drivers less than $15. “The biggest things I want to see would be a living wage, and a fair and transparent bidding process to move up,” said Krout.

Workers want a fair chance at advancement, and think that a big international company like Borgers can afford it. Said Slagle: “They can afford to pay rent-a-cops to sit out here and watch us on the picket line, but can’t give us a wage increase?”

Borgers workers in Germany are members of I.G. Metall. Ohio strikers have been in contact with their German counterparts. “In Germany, all their plants are unionized,” Gonzales said. “We don’t want to be considered second-class employees at Borgers.”

STRIKING JUST IN TIME

Striking for union recognition was a popular tactic during the U.S. labor movement’s growth spurt in the private sector during the 1930s-40s, and again in the public sector unionization wave of the 1970s. It’s far less common now. Most unions either use the National Labor Relations Board election process or find ways to put pressure—short of a strike—on an employer to voluntarily recognize the union.

Recognition strikes are most effective when workers have significant leverage over their employer. Much of the auto industry operates on a “just-in-time” model for parts delivery: big manufacturers get and make parts as they need them, rather than sitting on huge stockpiles. Workers at a Chrysler supplier in Toledo, Ohio, in 2014 used this leverage to win a recognition strike.

During the strike, the company has continued to operate at a reduced capacity, using a combination of workers who crossed the picket line and temps. But workers believe they’re affecting production.

“Since the strike, the quality of the parts has gone down,” said Slagle. “Their production is lower because they have people going back through parts [to check for mistakes].”

Krout expects the company to start incurring fines from automakers for falling behind on parts orders. “The impact on production has been significant,” he said. “Certain high-volume production cells are depleted entirely.” Much of what the Borgers workers produce goes to big General Motors facilities: Spring Hill in Tennessee; CAMI in Ontario, Canada; and Ramos Arizpe in Northern Mexico.

Strikers hope that the presence on the picket line of the high-skilled maintenance workers—responsible for keeping the finicky machines running—will slow down production even further.

“Our hopes are still high,” said Slagle. “The company is hard-headed and they’re not budging, but they’ve got some good workers out here who they can’t replace.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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GM poured billions into stock buybacks then closed plants

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Donald Trump is blaming the UAW for General Motors’ Lordstown, Ohio, plant closing. A Republican blaming a union for a massive company’s actions is not so surprising, but Trump is claiming that union dues are responsible, which is both strange and ignorant. Union dues are paid by workers to their union; they don’t come from the company. But a new report from Hedge Clippers and the American Federation of Teachers offers a better idea of who to blame for the Lordstown plant closing.

And guess what! GM, the company that decided to close the plant, says it needs to make $4.5 billion in cuts—through layoffs and plant closings—to survive. But “GM has given over five times as much money—$25 billion—to Wall Street hedge funds and other investors in the past four years, including over $10 billion in controversial stock buybacks.”

So, yeah. GM has money for stock buybacks, but not to keep its plants open and its workers employed.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on March 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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