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At Southern Factory, Workers Try Again To Unionize

Sep 22, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 12:35 pm

Workers at a truck seat plant in Alabama could vote on Wednesday to bring union membership to a part of the U.S. where it's had an especially tough history.

Some employees at the CVG manufacturing plant in rural Piedmont, Ala., want to join the United Auto Workers over a number of issues, including higher wages and the heat inside the 40-year-old facility.

So far this year, says plant manager Pete Bernier, CVG spent more than $67,000 on cooling, including several portable fans that were installed over the summer. He says it's helped, but adds that Alabama summers get hot and humid.

"It's not gonna be cold," he says. "It's a manufacturing plant."

During a heat wave, plant managers passed out water bottles and popsicles, even cold neck compresses. Tiffany Moore, who sews seat fabric, laughs at this. "That's just like a big, 'Look what we done. Look at what we did for you. We got you water,' " Moore says.

Moore says she and other workers this summer would drip sweat just sitting down. It isn't just the pay and tough working conditions, she says. It's the loss of personal days in recent years, and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance.

"Right now it's like $110 a week just for family coverage, and I've gotta have insurance. I've got two kids. And I do have to struggle week to week, from paycheck to paycheck. It's hard," she says.

Gerald Friedman, editor of the journal Labor History, says unions have been trying to organize in the South for more than a century with little success. Last year, the UAW lost a bid to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. He says that it's tough on employees but companies have it rough these days, too.

"It's a difficult market. I could almost have sympathy with management at this company, which I'm sure is looking at their bottom line and saying, 'We've gotta shave another 20 cents off every seat, and the way to do it is by turning the air conditioning off,' " Friedman says.

Since 2011, CVG has doubled its workforce, and it has raised wages some. But at the same time, Bernier says CVG has lost market share, and its stock price has dropped. And he says it's forced the company to be very selective about how it spends money.

"Even when companies are making a lot of money, if they aren't investing and reinvesting strategically, you're wasting your money," Friedman says.

Still, workers at the plant want to be heard. One organizer told this reporter that they considered going with United Steelworkers but that group failed at the plant three times. They're hoping this time around with UAW, it just might take.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The share of U.S. workers who belong to unions has fallen by about half over the last three decades. Efforts to unionize continue, even in the South, where they've had an especially tough history. Tomorrow in Piedmont, Ala., employees at a factory producing truck seats will vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers. Gigi Douban reports it's not all about the money.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Here at the CVG plant in Piedmont, they make all kinds of truck seats - soft ones, firm ones, leather and fabric. Plant manager Pete Bernier takes me on a tour of the 40-year-old plant. It's noisy. There are forklifts zipping around. Some workers are drilling. Some are painting. Some are welding. During the tour, Bernier uses words like teams and groups a lot. This is important because there's an effort underway to unionize this plant. Some employees want to join the United Auto Workers and they wanted to hold a vote. The reasons - higher wages, of course, but there's another thing. It gets hot in here. Bernier walks me past one of several portable fans installed over the summer.

PETE BERNIER: A giant cool fan.

DOUBAN: Bernier says this year so far, CVG spent more than $67,000 on cooling. He says it's helped, but Bernier adds let's face it. Alabama summers get hot and humid.

BERNIER: It's not going to be cold. It's a manufacturing plant.

DOUBAN: During a heat wave, plant managers passed out water bottles and popsicles, even cold neck compresses. Tiffany Moore, who sews seat fabric, laughs at this.

TIFFANY MOORE: (Laughter) That's just, like, a big look what we've done, you know? Look at what we did for you. We got you water.

DOUBAN: Moore says she and other workers this summer would drip sweat just sitting down. It isn't just the pay and tough working conditions, she says. It's the loss of personal days in recent years and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance.

MOORE: Right now, it's, like, $110 a week just for family coverage, and I've got to have insurance. I've got two kids. And I do have to struggle week to week from paycheck to paycheck. It's hard.

DOUBAN: Gerald Friedman is editor of the journal Labor History. He's says unions have been trying to organize in the South for more than a century with little success. Last year, the UAW lost a bid to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. He says it's tough on employees, but companies have it rough these days, too.

GERALD FRIEDMAN: It's a difficult market. I could almost have sympathy with management at this company, which I'm sure is looking at their bottom line and saying we've got to shave another 20 cents off every seat. And the way to do it is by turning the air conditioning off.

DOUBAN: Since 2011, CVG has doubled its workforce and it has raised wages some. But at the same time, Bernier, the plant manager, says CVG has lost market share. And its stock price has dropped. And he says it's forced the company to be very selective about how it spends money.

BERNIER: Even when companies are making a lot of money, if they aren't investing and reinvesting strategically, you're wasting your money.

DOUBAN: Still, workers at the plant want to be heard. One organizer told me they considered going with United Steel Workers, but that group failed at the plant three times. They're hoping this time around, with UAW, it just might take. For NPR News in Piedmont, Ala., I'm Gigi Douban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.