Growing pains at Fuyao plant as employees consider union

Some employees push for union as concerns grow about worker safety.

Like many of his fellow Fuyao Glass America workers, Bobby Terrell is grateful for the company’s presence in the community.

The Chinese auto glassmaker took a shuttered General Motors plant and built a manufacturing Colossus, employing 2,000 workers and counting.

But inside those factory walls the picture isn’t so spotless, according to workers who are attempting to organize a union at the plant.

Workers talk of safety problems and ever-changing work schedules. They say there is a lack of training on how to properly operate equipment. Some say they routinely need to use the Google Translate app to communicate with Chinese managers.

And they say their concerns are not being taken seriously.

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No serious injuries have been reported, but the workers say it’s only a matter of time. The 52-year-old Terrell, a lube technician, said he has been asked to climb equipment at a height that made him uncomfortable. Furnace operator Larry Yates pointed to scratch marks along his hands and forearms and said they were a result of his duties at the plant.

“I feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick,” said Yates, 49. “The big thing for me is safety.”

In October, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Fuyao for what it termed four serious workplace safety violations. They included a lack of personal protective equipment, a failure to guard electrical wires to prevent contact with employees and improper use of electrical cords.

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A month later, OSHA’s Cincinnati regional office, saying it had conducted eight inspections at the Moraine plant, announced $226,937 in proposed penalties.

At the time, OSHA said it was responding to what it called “23 serious safety violations and one other-than-serious violation.”

In a statement that month, Ken Montgomery, OSHA’s area director in Cincinnati, said, “Fuyao Glass America needs to protect its workers. Period. Since Fuyao began operations in October 2015, we have received multiple complaints and conducted eight inspections at the facility. We found safety and health violations in six of them.”

Last week, Montgomery said Fuyao managers are working with his agency and seem to be taking the safety issues more seriously.

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In fact, since a management shake-up at the plant in October, plant managers have been more “pro-active” about working with OSHA and solving problems, he said.

“They are making progress in addressing this,” Montgomery said. “They are working with us.”

The company and OSHA have yet to agree on a negotiated fine amount, however.

Union coup

Visit the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 696 hall on Alwildy Avenue, and a list of concerns about working conditions at Fuyao can be seen written on a poster hanging in a conference room.

Talk to workers, and you’ll get a similar list.

Union leaders say they are getting closer to asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to oversee a vote by Fuyao workerson whether to join the UAW.

If successful, the vote would be a huge coup for the union, which has seen manufacturing jobs disappear over many years in Ohio and throughout the Midwest.

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The very spot where Fuyao sits was one of those job graveyards. But since Fuyao Chairman Cho Tak Wong bought 1.4 million square feet of the shuttered GM assembly plant in 2014, a renaissance has taken place. Fuyao, China’s largest auto glass manufacturer, now employs 2,000 people at the plant, including 1,800 hourly workers.

That’s nearly double the number of GM workers who worked in the plant when the American automaker closed it in 2008. The GM workers were represented by the IUE-CWA union.

Ken Lortz, director of this UAW region — an area that includes much of western Ohio and Indiana — wouldn’t give the number of worker signatures his organizers have collected, but he said he is confident that there will be a NLRB-overseen election in time.

“There’s progress being made every day,” he said.

Terrell is one of those urging his fellow workers to join. “I think we need a voice,” he said.

Terrell welcomes the jobs and the payroll that the plant has brought, and he marvels at the work ethic of many of the Chinese management in place in Moraine.

“But what they told us in the beginning until now has changed,” he said. “They keep changing the attendance policies, they keep changing work hours, they keep changing all these policies. Our (employee) handbook has changed so much, we don’t even know where to turn.”

Leaders of the company say they are taking on a difficult task, creating a new auto glass manufacturer — the largest at one location in the world — in an industry that’s new to most of its workforce.

Although it is backed by a billionaire Chinese industrialist, Fuyao Glass America is still a start-up company, they say, and it has some of the same growing pains many other start-ups experience.

Some discontent is to be expected, said Eric Vanetti, the company’s vice president of human resources and labor relations. He said the company strives to treat its employees properly but prefers to deal with them directly, rather than go through union representatives.

Vanetti said the company would campaign against the workers organizing.

“It’s not an anti-union campaign,” Vanetti said. “It’s a pro-company, pro-direct relationship campaign because that is what we believe is the best opportunity for success, for our people and for us working together.”

A ‘very significant’ prize

Union membership in America has declined for decades, and the jobs unions traditionally represent have been disappearing.

In 1994, the United States had about 16.8 million manufacturing jobs. Today, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, there are about 12.3 million manufacturing jobs, which is actually up from a Great Recession low of 11.5 million in early 2011.

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In late January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the national number of union members as a percentage of the workforce dropped 0.4 percent in 2016. Ohio saw a tiny increase: 0.1 percent.

“To get a new auto-parts plant for the UAW I think would be very significant,” said Lucia Dunn, an economics professor at the Ohio University. “Their history is just going down, down, down.”

The UAW says it has about 408,000 members nationally today — down from more than 650,000 in 2005 and 1.5 million in 1979.

“To have that many members join, that would definitely give them (the UAW) the ability to go up against a firm,” said Jennifer Hawkins, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University. “Two thousand members helps really back them up.”

Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga argues that union representation leads to higher wages, better benefits, safer workplaces and a more robust economy.

“There is simply no substitute for working people bargaining collectively for a fair share of the wealth we help create,” he said in January.

It’s not clear whether a union vote at Fuyao is imminent, although UAW organizers from Detroit have visited Dayton and spoken with local workers, and authorization or election cards have been handed out.

Organizers say many workers are receptive to their entreaties; some, they said, called the UAW early on.

“They were calling right away actually, and talking about the conditions,” said Brian Martin, president of UAW Local 696.

Lortz said the UAW intends to have the signatures of more than 30 percent of the Fuyao-Moraine workforce before approaching the NLRB to request an election.

“We don’t petition at 30 percent,” Lortz said, adding: “I’m not going to make public how many (signed) cards we have.”

Although a union would be new to Fuyao in Ohio, it wouldn’t be the first time the company had dealt with an organized workforce.

Fuyao inherited a plant-union relationship when the company acquired a glass plant in Mount Zion, Ill. in July 2014. The United Steelworkers represents about 200 employees at that plant.

“It works,” Fuyao Assistant General Counsel Micah Siegal said. “We have a pretty good relationship with the Steelworkers there. The chairman recognized the union there.”

A message seeking comment with left with United Steelworkers Local 193G in Illinois.

An ‘American company’

Vanetti said the company has no higher priority than safety.

“There’s been a much stronger focus on that since John Crane (the company’s environmental health and safety manager) came in last year,” Vanetti said. “We do work very closely with OSHA. There have been complaints and we’re striving to try to address those issues.”

He said the company has created a safety committee of hourly employees to advise the company on safety issues. Protective gear vending machines are available around the plant, allowing workers to get gear with a swipe of their employee ID card.

“We really worked hand-in-hand with OSHA over the last few months,” Siegal said.

Dan Curran, retired University of Dayton president and independent Fuyao board member, said he’s not surprised at the UAW’s efforts to organize the plant.

“You know the UAW is going to be there, putting things out,” Curran said. “That’s reality.”

While some of the labor/management issues have a familiar ring, others are unique to a plant with foreign ownership.

Communication between managers and associates who speak Mandarin and workers who speak English is an ongoing problem, some of the workers at the plant say.

“I have a thing (app) on my phone called ‘Google Translate,’” Terrell said. “I have to use that to do my job. I have to use that to ask questions.”

Curran acknowledged that there are cultural differences at work, but he said both management and workers are doing their best to reconcile those.

“They want this to be an American company,” Curran said of current plant management. “But at this moment, the expertise — the technical expertise, the supervisory expertise — is Chinese.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Curran said of management-worker relations. “It didn’t happen for Honda overnight. There are these cultural differences that pop up. And it should be expected that they will pop up.”

Vanetti says the company prefers a relationship with workers unencumbered by what he calls a “third party.”

“Can you make it work with third-party representation for some or all of your employees?” he said. “Yes, you can. Is it our desire to do it, to manage that way? No.”

Although a union would be new to Fuyao in Ohio, it wouldn’t be the first time the company had dealt with an organized workforce.

Fuyao leaders point out that they inherited a plant-union relationship when the company acquired a glass plant in Mount Zion, Ill. in July 2014. The United Steelworkers represents about 200 employees at that plant.

“It works,” Fuyao Assistant General Counsel Micah Siegal said. “We have a pretty good relationship with the Steelworkers there. The chairman recognized the union there.”

A message seeking comment with left with United Steelworkers Local 193G in Illinois.

Local 696’s Martin said Dayton was built on blue-collar labor. His local unit has a history that stretches back to the 1930s. Today, it has some 2,500 retirees — but only about 250 active members.

“We’re trying to keep the labor movement going into other facilities,” Martin said. “That’s what you have to do. When things close, another door opens.”

Fuyao Glass America

$450 million: Fuyao Global’s investment into a former General Motors plant in Moraine.

$25 million+: The amount the company says it funnels into the economy monthly.

$226,937: The fine the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed in November for what it says were safety violations found at the plant. OSHA and the company are negotiating a final fine amount.

2,000+: Hourly and salaried workers at the Moraine plant.

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