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At Southern Factory, Workers Try Again To Unionize

Workers at a truck seat plant in Alabama could vote on Wednesday to bring union membership to a part of the U.S. where it's had an especially tough history.

Some employees at the CVG manufacturing plant in rural Piedmont, Ala., want to join the United Auto Workers over a number of issues, including higher wages and the heat inside the 40-year-old facility.

So far this year, says plant manager Pete Bernier, CVG spent more than $67,000 on cooling, including several portable fans that were installed over the summer. He says it's helped, but adds that Alabama summers get hot and humid.

"It's not gonna be cold," he says. "It's a manufacturing plant."

During a heat wave, plant managers passed out water bottles and popsicles, even cold neck compresses. Tiffany Moore, who sews seat fabric, laughs at this. "That's just like a big, 'Look what we done. Look at what we did for you. We got you water,' " Moore says.

Moore says she and other workers this summer would drip sweat just sitting down. It isn't just the pay and tough working conditions, she says. It's the loss of personal days in recent years, and the skyrocketing cost of health insurance.

"Right now it's like $110 a week just for family coverage, and I've gotta have insurance. I've got two kids. And I do have to struggle week to week, from paycheck to paycheck. It's hard," she says.

Gerald Friedman, editor of the journal Labor History, says unions have been trying to organize in the South for more than a century with little success. Last year, the UAW lost a bid to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. He says that it's tough on employees but companies have it rough these days, too.

"It's a difficult market. I could almost have sympathy with management at this company, which I'm sure is looking at their bottom line and saying, 'We've gotta shave another 20 cents off every seat, and the way to do it is by turning the air conditioning off,' " Friedman says.

Since 2011, CVG has doubled its workforce, and it has raised wages some. But at the same time, Bernier says CVG has lost market share, and its stock price has dropped. And he says it's forced the company to be very selective about how it spends money.

"Even when companies are making a lot of money, if they aren't investing and reinvesting strategically, you're wasting your money," Friedman says.

Still, workers at the plant want to be heard. One organizer told this reporter that they considered going with United Steelworkers but that group failed at the plant three times. They're hoping this time around with UAW, it just might take.

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Gigi Douban
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