Fed up with “Walmart wages,” Alabama auto parts plant goes union

RALEIGH, N.C. – Angry over what they described as their “Walmart wages,” workers at an Alabama auto parts plant voted last week, 89-45, to join the United Auto Workers. The employees at Commercial Vehicle Group Inc. in Piedmont, Ala. voted 89-45 for the union to become their collective bargaining agent.

The vote is worrisome to auto parts companies all over the South because, in addition to wages, the impetus for the successful union organizing campaign was anger over use of temp positions to fill regular jobs – something happening at parts plants all over the country. Unionizing at a parts plant scares the companies too because auto parts plants now employ about 75 percent of the nation’s auto workers.

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,  says the conventional wisdom. That same wisdom, however, says that what happens in the South, happens next everywhere else.

“In the same way that anti-union laws enacted in the South eventually spread to places like Wisconsin, union organizing success in the South too will spread to other places. The South is a predictor of what happens to the rest of the country,” said Mary B. McMillan to a group of labor journalists meeting in Raleigh on the day the victory at the Alabama plant was announced.

Speaking about the union victory in Alabama, Richard Bensinger, organizing advisor to the UAW, said, “This shows that workers in the South can organize in spite of right-to-work laws. Workers in the South are like workers anywhere: they want a secure future, and more and more are beginning to understand that the way to get this is through working together in a union.”

“Our backs were up against the wall – in just a few years the company gutted our health insurance, took away personal days, and started replacing jobs with temp positions that pay less than Walmart,” said Tiffany Moore, 34, a mother of two children, who is paid $13.84 an hour at the plant. “I’ve never been part of a union before, but after years of scraping by while the company ignored our concerns, anyone could see the only option we had left was to join together to demand the change we need to support ourselves and families.”

The UAW says that 25 percent of the jobs at the plant had become temp positions that start pay at $9.70 an hour, with no benefits. The most any production worker could earn is $15.80 an hour. From that the company takes $60 per week for health insurance for individuals and $110 for families. Actual take-home pay for workers receiving the top pay grade and family health insurance is just $27,000 per year.

“I made the choice to join together with others at the plant because I don’t want the next kid who starts at CVG to have to work more than a decade just to be stuck at $15 an hour,” said Alan Amos, 50, who was one of the organizers of the campaign to unionize. His pay is now at the $15.80 per hour level. “Winning this union is life- changing not just for me and my family, ” he said, “but for the next generation of people in Piedmont, Alabama who will work at this factory and now have a real chance at a decent living.”

The victory is significant also because the plant reflects what is happening in manufacturing jobs all over the country – wage cuts and increased use of temp positions. Some 25 percent of manufacturing jobs in the country now pay less than $11.91 an hour, according to the UAW.

“Jobs in the auto industry helped build America’s middle class, but today they are adding to the nation’s low-wage crisis,” said Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project. “What these workers at the CVG are proving is that a better way is possible, and that by organizing and winning a voice on the job, workers can make the manufacturing industry a ticket to the middle class again.”

CVG is a worldwide seat manufacturer operating not just in 11 states in the United States, but also overseas in Mexico, China, India, the UK, Belguim, and the Czech Republic.

Photo: Workers at the Piedmont Alabama plant show their support for the UAW.   |  Courtesy of UAW


CONTRIBUTOR

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is editor in chief at Peoplesworld.org. He started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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