Eight months ago, Philadonna Wade started temporary work on an axle assembly line for an auto parts supplier. The company, Detroit Chassis, was based in Michigan but had recently set up an additional operation in Avon, Ohio, to supply parts for Ford trucks. The pay was only $9.50 an hour. But after talking to her supervisor at the temp agency, Wade thought that she’d be hired as a permanent employee in 30 days—and that she’d get a raise every three months until she reached $15 an hour.
But those raises didn’t materialize, and permanent employment didn’t come. Wade, a single mother of four kids 10 and under, heard similar stories of broken promises from her co-workers—all of the 60 line workers at the plant are temporary employees. Together, they decided to complain to management about not receiving raises.
But they couldn’t figure out who to complain to. The temporary agency, Callos Resource, said they were just a subcontractor hired out by a staffing company called Comprehensive Logistics (CLI). Detroit Chassis had contracted out the responsibility for hiring workers for axle assembly to CLI, which had then subcontracted the hiring to a third company, Callos.
“It was crazy,” says Wade. “We would call about a raise and they would say, ‘That’s not us.’ You have to go and talk to Comprehensive Logistics. So then we’d go talk to the HR guy at Comprehensive Logistics, and they’d say, ‘You have to go talk to Callos.’ What about Detroit Chassis? ‘We don’t have nothing to do with them.’ Who do we work for?
“We were constantly getting the run-around. That pissed us off. We wanted a straightforward answer, and no one would give it to us.”
So the workers tried another tactic: They went to the UAW, who agreed to represent them.
The organizing drive went well: all 60 production workers, all temps, signed union cards. When the workers threatened a walkout last week, Detroit Chassis agreed to recognize the union without an election.
Wade, one of the leaders of the union effort, was surprised that Detroit Chassis capitulated so quickly. “I’m not gonna lie,” she says. “I thought they’d take a tougher stand and at least make us strike for a day or two.”
Ken Yerkes, an attorney at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis who represents employers on labor matters, is less surprised. Yerkes says recent changes in National Labor Relations Board rules make it harder to treat temporary workers different from permanent workers.
“There’s not a lot of advantage to bifurcating your workforce the way you used to,” he says. For companies like auto suppliers who are “trying to be the lost-cost producer so they can maintain relationships, the bar is being raised. You need to find ways to address concerns about fairness and opportunity in the workplace in the same manner that you would if they were your regular full-time employees.”
In the case, Browning Ferris Industries of California, the NLRB ruled that companies that use temporary agencies are considered “joint employers” of temp workers--and share liability with the temporary agencies--if they have the authority to make decisions over the workers. In addition, temporary workers who unionize have the right to bargain with both the company outsourcing the work and the temporary agency.
Sarah Leberstein, a senior staff attorney for the workers-rights group National Employment Law Project, welcomes the rule change. She says that her organization is “definitely seeing more convoluted work arrangements that defy normal expectations of how employers do or should relate to their workers.” She says there are multiple reasons for such arrangements, “the main ones being to save on labor costs and avoid liability.”
Detroit Chassis’s CEO, Michael Guthrie, says that the NLRB decision had no bearing on his company’s decision to recognize the union. “We were advised that 100% of the employees had signed cards requesting authorization. They voiced their choice, and we respect that.”
According to Guthrie, Detroit Chassis contracted workers and assembly space in Ohio a year ago because his company has a job at Ford's nearby Ohio Assembly Plant that stipulates orders must be turned around and delivered in four hours. In that time frame, “inventory has to be picked, product has to be assembled and sequenced in order and shipped to the plant,” Guthrie says, so setting up a base nearby was essential. Late delivery can mean fines.
“We have no operations in Ohio,” said Guthrie. “In order for us to put a structure in place, a management team—that’s an extraordinary undertaking.” Contracting out the work “makes it much more efficient and competitive to provide the resources, and we can pass that along to the customer,” which in this case was Ford. “They’re providing a price structure and we have to figure out the best fit.”
Guthrie attributes the worker complaints to “teething issues” with its subcontracting arrangement. The Ohio plant “is a startup operation, so everything’s new and we’re starting from scratch. We’re trying to work with all parties to overcome those challenges and make them transparent to the customer.”
Wade says that if there had been a clear path from the workers to a human resources representative, the union push might not have been as successful. For HR issues like the women’s bathroom being locked during night shift hours or co-workers making inappropriate comments, “we didn’t know who to complain to,” she says.
Another sticking point, she says, is that she and her co-workers are scheduled for eight-hour shifts, but are sometimes sent home after five or six. Wade, who supplements her income with food stamps and a housing subsidy, is out the money for a babysitter for the full night even if she comes home early and doesn’t get paid for the full shift.
Guthrie says that the Detroit Chassis plant in Michigan, which has 250 workers, has been union since it opened in 1999. In that case, “we approached the UAW because we thought it would be an advantage to be unionized. We’re operating in a union environment; we’re building a product with parts supplied by union employees, and we are supplying product for assembly to a union environment. So we thought we would be proactive and work with the union to provide a flexible and competitive contract to be a world-class manufacturing resource, and they agreed.”
Guthrie said that originally, he had no plans to hire the temporary workers. “The plan was to subcontract out the operations. How [CLI] did it was up to them, because we have no right or obligation to tell them how to run their business.”
Despite the workers’ celebratory mood last week, there’s still one more hurdle to the success of the union drive: At the moment, Wade and her co-workers technically don’t work for Detroit Chassis. Guthrie says that Detroit Chassis still has to hire the employees from Comprehensive Logistics, and he’s not sure how long that will take.
“Detroit Chassis has zero production employees at that plant,” Guthrie says. “We have suppliers, and our suppliers have employees. … We have no responsibility for directing, supervising, hiring and firing.”
CLI “has a period of time for them to provide the service, and it would be a breach of contract for us to hire those people away from them,” says Guthrie. “Obviously, there are conversations around the best way to address that issue, but I’m not at liberty to talk about them.”