Newspaper article International New York Times

Rare Victory in Alabama for Labor Unions ; Vote at Auto Parts Plant Could Signal Changing Attitudes in the South

Newspaper article International New York Times

Rare Victory in Alabama for Labor Unions ; Vote at Auto Parts Plant Could Signal Changing Attitudes in the South

Article excerpt

The 2-to-1 margin of victory for the U.A.W. at a small auto parts factory represents an unusual win in the uphill battle to organize autoworkers in the South.

When the results of a vote to join the United Automobile Workers union was announced at the Commercial Vehicle Group (C.V.G.) in Piedmont, Ala., the "hollering and whooping" echoed throughout the plant, said Alan Amos, a welder there.

The 2-to-1 margin of victory announced late Wednesday at the small factory, which makes seats for trucks, represents an unusual win in the uphill battle to organize autoworkers in the South. But it was unclear whether the vote signaled a broader breakthrough for labor and the U.A.W. in a region that has historically been allergic to most unions.

Employees at C.V.G. cited low pay, which tops out at $15.80 an hour, the growing use of temporary workers at even lower wages and rising health insurance costs as reasons they voted to join the union.

The use of temporary workers as a way to cut costs has become a potent organizing issue, according to Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor relations expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Workers see it as closing off "a conventional pathway to the American dream," he said.

Mr. Cornfield considered the Piedmont vote significant despite the plant's small size. (There are only about 150 regular workers and 60 temporary workers.)

"If the U.A.W. can succeed in organizing a Southern manufacturer," he said, "it makes a statement that trade unionism is not necessarily an anathema to Southern work culture."

For Mr. Amos, a 10-year veteran of C.V.G. and one of the people who spearheaded the organizing effort, the breaking point came this spring. "There were conversations around the break room about how things kept getting worse and worse," Mr. Amos said, citing high temperatures inside the plant, worsening benefits and the extensive use of temporary workers who earn $9.70 an hour and have no insurance.

"It just kept piling and piling on top of each other," he said. "We complained, but it kept falling on deaf ears."

In May, Mr. Amos called the toll-free number on the U.A.W.'s website. From there, the organizing drive coalesced quickly, despite the failure of previous efforts at the plant by the United Steelworkers union.

In many ways the organizing effort flew under the radar. By contrast, conservative groups and Republican lawmakers rallied to defeat attempts to organize employees at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even though the German car company itself had stayed out of the fray.

Opponents argued that unionizing would damage the state's competitiveness, and repeatedly raised the specter that unions helped bring about the problems in Detroit's automobile industry.

The loss in Chattanooga, by a 712-to-626 vote, was one of a series of failed attempts over the decades to unionize automobile workers in the South, where a number of foreign manufacturers, including BMW, Toyota and Nissan, operate assembly plants. (C.V.G., a global auto supplier, has its headquarters in Ohio. …

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