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Charles Crooms used to install windshields at a bus manufacturing plant in Anniston, Alabama, where he earned about $13 per hour. The money beat the minimum wage of $7.25 in his state, but it wasn’t the sort of family-sustaining pay Crooms expected in auto production.
He quit that job at New Flyer of America’s plant two years ago. Now, Crooms is a paid organizer for a group undertaking a novel strategy to force manufacturers in the South to provide better jobs for the colleagues he left behind, one that puts pressure for improving those jobs on the governments who buy their products.
The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority recently contracted with New Flyer to produce a fleet of electric buses at the Anniston facility. Crooms’ group, Jobs to Move America, spent last week at a trade show in New York City making its cases to the MTA and two dozen other transit systems that they should help raise pay and working conditions in Alabama. Those systems can do that, the group maintains, by leaning on vendors like New Flyer.
“What I know is needed at that plant is a strong voice for the workers,” said the 53-year-old Crooms. “What we’re doing is trying to create a good, safe job, a family-supporting workplace … and to hold New Flyer accountable for the [public money] they’ve received.”
Both foreign and domestic manufacturers have moved to Southern states over the past two decades, lured by lower labor costs, a weak union presence and generous public subsidies. Once known for textiles, Alabama has become the auto industry capital of the South, attracting the likes of Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai to set up new plants. Those facilities have helped spawn other facilities that supply parts.
Juicy tax incentives have been essential to the state’s manufacturing growth. State and local governments will be doling out more than $800 million for a new joint Toyota and Mazda plant in Huntsville. It may be years before taxpayers know whether that money was worth the estimated 4,000 jobs the facility will bring ― and whether the jobs are at all what residents had hoped they would be.
Patricia Todd, a former member of the Alabama House representing Birmingham, said there hasn’t been a great deal of accountability after the groundbreakings. Todd is now the southern program director for Jobs to Move America, which was founded in 2013. She argues that if public money is helping to underwrite the state’s manufacturing growth, then both government officials and corporations should ensure the jobs provide good wages, solid health care coverage and retirement benefits.
“You need to document the return on investment,” said Todd. “The government promotes the low unemployment rate, but are people making a living wage? Most people who are working are making a little above minimum wage, and it takes two jobs just to support their families.”
New Flyer’s parent company, Canadian-based NFI Group, relies heavily on public contracts for its business. The company employs 2,300 U.S. workers, including 750 producing buses in Anniston. The company also has plants in Minnesota.
Jobs to Move America released a report about the Anniston plant last week, based on worker interviews, alleging employees are overworked and subject to racial discrimination. Several employees said they have to work mandatory overtime on short notice, leading to schedules of 60 to 70 hours per week and up to 12 consecutive workdays. The report also stated that 15 percent of the workers the group surveyed said they had sustained serious injuries in the plant.
New Flyer’s CEO, Paul Soubry, stood by the company’s record in Anniston, calling the report’s allegations “incomplete and unfounded” in an email to HuffPost. He accused Jobs to Move America of trying to ”tarnish the company’s reputation and to interfere with and damage its business relationships with customers.” Soubry said the group’s real goal was to pave the way for unionization at the Anniston plant, which is currently non-union.
Soubry said starting wages at the Anniston plant now range between $13.84 and $21.42 per hour, depending on the job classification. The tax incentives the company has received for the plant are contingent on hitting employment commitments it made to local governments, he noted, adding that the company partnered with a nonprofit on workforce diversity and hiring.
“As we have for so many years, we will do the right thing for our employees, our customers and our shareholders, while being responsible to the environment and the communities that we live and work in,” Soubry said.
Jobs to Move America is pressuring New Flyer to enter into what’s known as a community benefits agreement. Under a CBA, a company agrees not only to create a certain number of living-wage jobs, but to provide training programs, to meet clear environmental standards, and to hit particular hiring goals, like bringing on workers with criminal records. The clauses of a CBA are legally enforceable, unlike some of the looser commitments companies often make with local governments.
A CBA may also include an employer pledge to not oppose a unionization effort if employees pursue one. Such neutrality agreements can make it vastly easier for workers to unionize in areas that are hostile to organized labor, since they don’t have to worry about retaliation. (The union membership rate in Alabama is 9.2 percent ― high for the South but low compared with states in the Northeast or on the West Coast.)
New Flyer said 78 percent of its workers in the U.S. and Canada, if not those in Alabama, are represented by unions. “We value and respect our employees’ right to choose whether to organize or not. It is not something we impose on our team members,” Soubry said.
One of New Flyer’s contracts, with the Los Angeles Metro, is now the subject of a fraud complaint brought by Jobs to Move America in California state court. The metro system’s $500 million purchase from New Flyer was contingent on certain wage and benefit commitments from the company. The New York Times reported in August that pay stubs and court documents showed the benefits workers received were well below what the company claimed.
Jobs to Move America and other community groups succeeded in getting the Chinese manufacturer BYD to sign a community benefits agreement for its plant in California, where it has produced buses for a number of transit systems. As The American Prospect reported, that accord paved the way for the sheet metal workers union to organize the plant, raising wages and securing job protections for the workers there.
CBAs could become more common at manufacturers if the transit systems that buy their products promote them. Several transit systems already give bidders like New Flyer extra credit on their bids based on how many good-paying jobs they will create in the U.S. But Jobs to Move America wants them to go a step further, by urging vendors like New Flyer to enter into CBAs before they make bids for public contracts.
The group has enlisted not only labor unions but civil rights groups in its mission, including the Alabama NAACP. Anniston’s population is nearly 50% Black, with 29.5% of residents living below the federal poverty line, more than twice the national rate.
Scott Douglas, the director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, said he was intrigued by the idea of pressuring far-away transit systems as a way to raise pay and bargain collectively in a town like Anniston. Douglas joined the delegation that visited New York last week for a conference hosted by the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group for systems such as the MTA.
Douglas and workers from Anniston met with representatives from transit agencies. He said their message was simple.
“We’re getting tired of bad deals, where there’s a big ribbon-cutting and the community doesn’t benefit,” Douglas told HuffPost. “We don’t have to impose lower standards of work and pay here just because this is Alabama.”