Workers at the Flex-N-Gate plant in Arlington, Texas on May Day voted overwhelmingly to join the UAW. Nearly 70 percent of the 73 workers eligible to vote in the union representation election voted for the union.
The UAW represents 40 percent Flex-N-Gate workers in the US and is currently conducting organizing campaigns at several of the company’s ten non-union plants, including the ones in Urbana, Illinois and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Flex-N-Gate, a supplier of diverse auto parts to auto manufacturers around the world, is owned by Shahid Khan, a billionaire who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League. The company, which also does business as Ventra, Masterguard, and Guardian West, had more than $3 billion in revenue in 2011, but pays workers at its non-union plants near poverty wages.
Cindy Estrada, UAW vice-president told Automotive News in February that workers at Flex-N-Gate’s non-union plants, including the one in Arlington, are paid about $10 an hour even if the have more than ten years of service.
After the hotly contested union victory in Arlington, both sides struck a conciliatory note.
“We hope that through this election we can establish a relationship with Flex-N-Gate that best benefits the workers,” said Estrada, who leads the union’s Competitive Shop/Independents, Parts and Suppliers Department. “We look forward to this paving the way to show Flex-N-Gate that there is indeed added value for everyone when workers join the UAW.”
“Our employees have always had the freedom of choice to organize, and we will always respect the decision they make,” the company said in a statement. “We look forward to continued success with all of our employees in Arlington.”
But Flex-N-Gate and the UAW have had a contentious relationship.
In 2010, the UAW lost a representation election at the Arlington plant, but the National Labor Relations Board found that the company had committed unfair labor practices, which included firing three union supporters, threatening other supporters with firings, and offering pay raises and bonuses to anti-union workers.
More recently, UAW members at Flex-N-Gate plants in Warren, Michigan and Belvidere, Illinois have been trying unsuccessfully so far to negotiate new contracts. The lack of progress led workers at the two plants in February to vote to authorize strikes.
Shortly after the strike vote, UAW organized coordinated solidarity demonstrations at Flex-N-Gate’s union and non-union plants, including the one in Arlington.
“We have raised concerns about issues at both unionized and non-union plants during these negotiations,” said Billy Williams, a member of UAW Local 155’s bargaining committee in Warren during one of the February solidarity demonstration. “Wages and working conditions at Flex-N-Gate’s non-union plants directly affect our ability to bargain a fair contract. When the company is allowed to pay poverty wages and cut corners on important issues like safety at its non-union plants, it’s that much harder for us to continue to move forward in our contract negotiations. Those plants undercut the standards we’ve worked so hard to establish. They don’t compete based on quality or efficiency – just on how low they can drive standards.”
Safety concerns have led non-union workers at Flex-N-Gate’s Urbana, Illinois plant to join an organizing campaign at their plant.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration in June 2012 fined Flex-N-Gate $57,000 for serious safety and health violations at its Urbana plant.
A month later, 11 workers at the same plant were sent to the hospital after inhaling fumes from a cloud of leaking sulfuric acid gas.
In October, OSHA cited the company for not protecting workers at the Urbana plant from metal dust. The combustible metal dust caused fires and respiratory problems for workers exposed to it.
Recognizing that the lack of safety and low pay at the company’s non-union plants threatens gains won at union plants, union members formed the Flex-N-Gate Council and pledged to help non-union Flex-N-Gate members organize.
“We pledge to do all we can to support (non-union Flex-N-Gate workers) in forming your own union, and we look forward to the day that we can welcome you a members of the UAW,” reads a statement issued by the council.