Workers at Flex-N-Gate organize for justice

April 11, 2012

WORKERS AND their union and community allies in Urbana, Ill., are calling for the Flex-N-Gate company to provide better working conditions and stop union-busting efforts.

On March 10, workers and supporters held a rally at the plant to draw attention to the plight of the largely immigrant workforce.

Flex-N-Gate manufactures auto parts for major automakers including BMW, Ford, Nissan and Toyota. With 24 manufacturing facilities across the Midwest and in the South, as well as 25 in Canada, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, Flex-N-Gate reported $2.5 billion in annual revenue in 2011. That makes Flex-N-Gate one of the largest suppliers of the auto industry worldwide. Owner Shahid Khan is one of the top 200 billionaires in the U.S. and one of the 500 richest people on earth, according to Forbes.

In contrast to the exorbitant revenue and profits at the company, the sweatshop working conditions at the Flex-N-Gate plant in Urbana offer a clear vision of low-wage America.

According to the United Auto Workers union (UAW), which is sponsoring a nationwide organizing drive at Flex-N-Gate plants, management has not provided employees with the basic safety equipment to deal with adverse health effects from exposure to hexavalent chromium. The instructions provided on safe handling of this chemical are close to non-existent and far from adequate.

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Workers start as temps earning $9 an hour. If they are not fired before their 90th day of work--stories of "temp abuse" are rampant at Flex-N-Gate, with many workers going through the temp period more than once--they are eligible to become permanent employees, making $11 an hour. Many workers are not provided with medical insurance, even after a year of working at the plant.

Workers have identified more than 30 violations of the standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and have filed several complaints with the agency, but business keeps going unaltered. The Guardian West plant in Urbana is not even temperature regulated, so workers must endure excessive cold in winter and heat in summer. Many workers have reported fainting in the summer months.

A majority of the workplace safety violations regard exposure to the carcinogenic chemical agent hexavalent chromium, the same toxic chemical that the true-story film Erin Brokovich deals with.

Hexavalent chromium is used in the factory to achieve the glossy and plated look of bumpers. But the chemical is also responsible for serious adverse health effects if proper precautions aren't taken. According to OSHA, workplace exposure to hexavalent chromium is proven to cause lung cancer and irritation or damage to the nose, throat, eyes and skin.

Workers say that OSHA-mandated safety equipment has been replaced with cheap ineffective substitutes to reduce overhead costs. According to the UAW, the required $5 safety mask, provided to the employees to prevent the inhalation of carcinogenic fumes, has been replaced by $.50 cotton substitutes. At the same time, cheap latex gloves are substituted for the thicker and more costly industrial gloves ideal to handle corrosive chemicals and heavy metals.

In addition, while OSHA requires that employees who come in contact with hexavalent chromium be provided with proper cleaning facilities to rid their bodies and clothes of the chemical, management at Flex-N-Gate has failed to provide this--in effect, exposing the community and employee¹s families to the carcinogenic chemical.

IN ORDER to demand their rights as workers and human beings, workers have made numerous attempts at unionizing with the assistance of the UAW. Their efforts have been thwarted by management's draconian opposition.

In a move to prevent unionization, the company reportedly makes a regular practice of hiring a workforce that is divided along language lines. One-third of the workers at the Urbana plant, for example, are French-speaking Congolese workers, one third are Spanish-speaking Latin American immigrants, and another third are English-speaking African Americans and whites.

In addition to workers' inability to communicate with each other, workers claim that there are safety signs inside the factory written in English only, with no French or Spanish translations provided.

Furthermore, workers allege that the company has retaliated against some of those who have come out in support of forming a union. Some have been given sudden extra shifts to prevent them from attending UAW-sponsored events, while others have been deprived of the opportunity of taking extra shifts (which many need in order to earn enough to care for their families).

The scale of the intimidation campaign reached a high point in mid-February, when 11 families of Congolese workers at the plant were notified by their landlord, Royse and Brinkmeyer Apartments, that their leases would not be renewed for the coming year because of "less than satisfactory" experiences with the tenants. An urgent alert was sent immediately through Champaign-Urbana activist networks, and after a storm of calls and e-mails, the landlord pulled back from this threat.

Meanwhile, Flex-N-Gate owner Shahid Khan recently bought the Jacksonville Jaguars football team for $760 million. Khan is also among the top five donors to the University of Illinois--just in 2011, he donated approximately $10 million to pay for an annex to the Applied Health Sciences building.

The fact that Khan can donate money for a state-of-the-art health building, but refuses to provide basic health and safety for his workers is outrageous. The university administration, as well as Champaign-Urbana politicians and business leaders, venerate Khan for his philanthropy, but ignore the manner in which this entrepreneur has acquired his fortune.

Activists in Urbana-Champaign are planning a number of actions in coming weeks to show solidarity with Flex-N-Gate workers, and to put pressure on the university administration--which has hired the same union-busting lawyer as Khan as it faces negotiations with the graduate employees union and the Service Workers International Union, to cut ties with this disgusting alumni.

By organizing inside the plants and in the communities, we can win justice for Flex-N-Gate workers.

Leighton Christiansen, Veer Kothari, Rebecca Marcotte, Jesse Phillipe and Damián Reyes contributed to this article.

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