Union organizers

Alan Amos, left, and Angie Hancock near the CVG Alabama plant, formerly Bostrom Seating, in Piedmont. Some employees there are in favor for a union.

Workers at a Piedmont plant are planning a vote in late September on joining the United Auto Workers.

Those workers, at the commercial truck seat manufacturer CVG Alabama, formerly Bostrom Seating, said they plan to vote later this month on forming a UAW chapter there.

Several of those employees said the decision to take that vote comes after what they describe as a loss of benefits, poor pay and dangerously hot working conditions at the facility.

A CVG spokeswoman says that the company has spent thousands to fix the heat problem and made efforts for workers at the former company to keep some existing benefits and receive new ones.

Alan Amos, 50, has worked as a welder at CVG Alabama, on Nances Creek Industrial Boulevard in Piedmont, for 10 years.

Amos worked there when Indiana-based Accuride bought Bostrom in 2005, and when CVG Global, based in New Albany, Ohio, bought the company in January 2011.

“Things didn’t change much right at first, and then we started losing things,” Amos said, speaking of the latest sale of the company.

Workers lost their personal days, Amos said, which had allowed them to take off a certain number of days each year without penalty. Employees went without raises for several years as well, Amos said, while the cost of health insurance through the company continued to rise.

Talk of a union

Several CVG workers began talking in May about the need to “do something,” Amos said.

One worker called the United Auto Workers, and a group of employees began talking about forming a local chapter of the union, Amos said.

CVG management have handed out anti-union flyers to workers, Amos said, but the mood between employees and bosses remains amicable.

Reached by phone Friday, CVG Alabama plant manager Pete Bernier referred questions about the worker’s complaints to CVG Global corporate offices.

In a statement Tuesday, Laura Macias, spokeswoman for CVG Global, wrote that the company respects the right of employees to consider a union “but we do not believe a union is in the best interest of Commercial Vehicle Group, our customers, or our employees.”

Macias wrote that when CVG bought the company it credited employees’ prior Bostrom service so they could receive as much as possible from the CVG policies and benefits, and that the company was losing money and market share when CVG bought it.

“CVG invested $2.1 million in capital in the plant, reinvigorated the product line, invested in marketing & sales activity, and turned the business around,” Macias wrote. “As a result, we have added nearly 70 jobs to the local economy.”

Speaking of benefits to workers, Macias wrote that CVG’s benefits benchmark well against other similar companies.

“Some elements of the CVG group benefits design were less favorable than the plan offered to Bostrom employees before the asset purchase; others were significantly better including no deductible on prescription coverage, a lower deductible on dental, better life & disability coverage, an additional coverage tier for employee and spouse, and a generous company match on 401(k) contributions where there previously was none.”

Amos said the plant employs approximately 140 permanent, full-time workers, and several dozen more temporary workers are employed through a staffing service.

Amos’s wife of 22 years had a heart attack and double-bypass surgery in 2013. She no longer works.

Amos said his pay is capped at $15.80 per hour which isn’t enough to raise a family, he said.

“It’s hard to take care of the power bill, phone bill, groceries and gas to get to work. There are times when you have to find a relative to borrow money,” Amos said.

It’s been seven years since Amos was able to afford to take the family on a vacation, he said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data the average pay for welders in 2014 was $19.25 or $3.45 more than Amos’s pay. In Alabama that year, welders made an average of $17.67 according to that data.  

Areas inside the plant are very hot, according to Amos and other workers. Air-conditioning systems in the plant are old and do not work well, and large ovens used to bake paint onto seating parts raises temperatures inside the plant, Amos said.

“We’ve asked that they do something about the heat and they tell us that they’re working on it,” Amos said.

“I go home soaking wet with sweat everyday. It’s so, so hot,” said Angelie Hancock, 49, who has worked at the plant since May 2014. “The heat makes me extremely tired and a lot of us get nauseated.”

Macias wrote that heat in the plant has been a challenge but that the company has spent $67,000 in recent repairs to the air-conditioning systems and in adding additional cooling units, and plan to build an insulation wall around furnaces to cool the plant.  

“Additionally, we provide free bottled water, popsicles and individual cooling neck wraps,” Macias wrote.

Hancock began working at CVG Alabama through Personnel Staffing Inc. in Oxford, and made $9.40 an hour. Once she was hired full-time in May she got a raise to $11 hourly, she said.  

“We’re all feeling hopeful that change is coming, and I know it’s hard because unions aren’t big in the South, but we’ve got to do something,” Hancock said.

Joe Etherton has worked at the Piedmont plant for 13 years, and said that employees considering a union only want better jobs.

“We don’t want the company to shut down,” Etherton said. “We just want good health care and good benefits, so our children’s children can work there and make a good living.”

Health care costs are especially hard on Etherton, he said, as he makes $14.40 hourly and pays around $240 a month for health insurance for himself and his wife, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The cost of a family medical plan, which includes coverage for children,  through the company is approximately $440 monthly, Etherton said.

“Some of her medicines is just so high I can’t afford it, so she does without,” Etherton said.

Health care costs to workers have risen, Macias wrote, but added that CVG is “pleased to provide competitive group benefits despite facing company healthcare cost increases of nearly 50 percent since 2011.”

A trend

Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for workers, authored a 2014 report on declining wages in the manufacturing industry.

According to her report, which used data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average hourly pay for an auto parts manufacturing worker in Alabama in 2014 was $14.44. The average monthly earnings for those workers declined by 42 percent from 2001 to 2014, according to the report.

“We want jobs, but we want good jobs,” Ruckelshaus said. “In the  best circumstances unions work with the workers and want to see the company thrive just as much as the company does. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial.”

The increasing use of temporary workers at auto-parts manufacturers is also masking the real average pay for full-time workers, Ruckelshaus said, because temporary worker’s pay is not reflected in the U.S. Census data.

“Using temporary staffing companies can save companies a lot of money on health and safety, workers comp and other payroll costs,” Ruckelshaus said. “But that ends up hurting the workers and their families.”

According to Ruckelshaus’s report, more than one in 10 Alabama manufacturing workers are employed by temporary staffing agencies, and are paid 35 percent less than those hired directly.

Macias said that CVG’s use of temporary workers “is in the best interest of our permanent workforce” and lets the company staff as needed to meet production demands.

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, in a message to a reporter Tuesday, wrote that, “The working women and men at CVG are taking a brave stand against the low wages and rampant temp positions that now define far too many U.S. auto jobs.

The pending vote by workers at the Piedmont plant isn’t the only such move by Alabama auto workers. Employees at the Honda plant in Lincoln are discussing forming a UAW union, according to Ted Pratt, spokesman for the Lincoln plant.

Honda last week mailed letters to employees telling them that a union is not needed at the plant. Pratt provided a copy to The Star on Tuesday.  

“The issue of union representation is ultimately one for our associates to decide and, for more than three decades, Honda associates have spoken loudly and clearly in choosing to reject UAW outreach efforts,” wrote Pratt in a statement.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in August, 58 percent of Americans asked by pollsters approve of labor unions, which is the highest percentage since an all-time low of 48 percent in 2009.  

Even so, union membership in the U.S. has been declining for decades. According to the Pew Research Center about 20 percent of workers belonged to unions in 1983. That fell to 11 percent in 2014, according to the center.