Workers at the Commercial Vehicles Group (CVG) truck seat plant in Piedmont, Alabama decided that they were tired of stagnant wages, benefit cuts, and company indifference to the health and safety and on September 23 voted by an 89 to 45 margin to join United Autoworkers (UAW).
“I’ve never been part of a union before,” said Tiffany Moore, a CVG worker. “But after years of scraping by while the company ignored our concerns, anyone could see that our only option was to join together to demand change we need to support ourselves and our family.”
The grievances that led CVG workers in Alabama to unionize are grievances that they share with the wider working class.
For example, stagnant wages have become the norm for most workers.
The Economic Policy Institute reports that over the last 30 years real hourly wages, the amount left after cost of living increases are subtracted, have risen only 6 percent for middle-income workers.
Low-income workers have seen their real wages decline by 5 percent over the same period.
Health care cost increases are another example.
The New York Times reports that the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that over the last five years health care deductibles paid by employees have increased six times more than wages have increased.
The realities of working class life hit hard at the CVG plant in Alabama.
“Our backs were up against the wall,” said Moore. “In just a few short years, the company gutted our health care, took away personal (leave) days, and started replacing jobs with temp positions that paid less than Walmart.”
The temp jobs at CVG Piedmont start at $9.70 per hour and the most that any worker can make is $15.70 an hour.
Wages for most workers fall in between these two levels.
To make matters worse, workers’ take home pay declined after CVG decided to raise workers’ health care premiums to $60 a week for individuals and their spouses and $110 a week for families.
Worker frustration came to a boil earlier this year when the plant’s cooling system stopped working, and temperatures inside the factory increased to 106 degree fahrenheit.
Citing threats to their health and safety, workers urged CVG to fix the cooling system.
But CVG, which boasts that it relies heavily on employee input to improve the manufacturing process, didn’t listen.
Instead it required workers to continue working in their overheated factory and offered them bottled water and popsicles to relieve the stress of the heat.
CVG is a worldwide manufacturer of commercial vehicle parts. In addition to the US, it operates plants in Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, China, the UK, and Ukraine.
It was created in the early years of the 21st century through a series of acquisitions and mergers..
In 2004, CVG became a public corporation and began selling stock worth $180 million.
Today, the CVG’s major investors are investment management companies and private equity firms like BlackRock Institutional Trust, Rutabaga Capital Management, York Capital Management, and Eagle Boston Investment Management.
The people who run these investment companies have demanded that CVG management cut cost, so that their investments will make more money.
One of the main ways that CVG has cut costs is by keeping wages low and forcing workers to pay higher health care costs.
That’s a story that is being repeated throughout the US.
According to the National Employment Law Project, one-quarter of today’s manufacturing jobs pay $11.91 an hour or less.
Manufacturing jobs were once the gateway to the middle class, but today many of these jobs have become a dead end that leaves workers in poverty.
Alan Amos, a welder at CVG Piedmont, thinks that by joining a union he and his fellow workers have taken a step toward restoring the promise that manufacturing jobs once held for workers, and he hopes that other workers will follow the CVG workers’ lead.
“Now that we’ve won our union, we’re going to be talking to workers all around Piedmont and in Alabama who are facing the same problems we’re facing and to show that a better way is possible,” writes Amos in an opinion piece appearing on the CNBC website. “And perhaps most importantly, I hope our actions inspire other workers in manufacturing jobs across the country to realize that they, too, deserve a shot at better pay, better treatment, and a middle class job.”