Workers at an automotive seat factory in Mississippi are protesting what they say are low wages and poor working conditions as they attempt to unionize in what could become a new front for the United Auto Workers in the state.
A group of workers and supporters at the Faurecia SA seating plant in Cleveland plans a Tuesday march.
"We work an auto job and we're getting paid like Wal-Mart wages," said Jamarqus Reed, a 32-year-old Pace resident who has worked at the plant for almost 10 years. "We're trying to better ourselves."
Nationally, the UAW has staked its future on unionizing Southern auto factories, with limited success so far.
The union has been trying to organize Nissan Motor Co.'s Canton, Mississippi, plant for years, and lost a 2008 worker vote at a Johnson Controls plant in nearby Madison that French-based Faurecia bought in 2011.
The UAW narrowly lost a unionization vote at the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last year, but the union has since qualified for a new labor policy at the plant that grants access to meeting space and to regular discussions with management. The policy stops short of collective bargaining rights.
The union is also trying to organize Nissan's assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Protesters say Faurecia employees make a top wage of $11.64 per hour, while contract workers make $7.73 an hour.
Company spokesman Tony Sapienza said that with overtime, the typical Faurecia employee makes more than the $27,000 a year that is the median wage around Cleveland. Wages are often low in the heavily impoverished Delta.
"We are very confident that we are offering a very competitive wage," Sapienza said.
Organizers criticize company use of lower-paid contract workers.
Shannon Greenidge, a 44-year-old Cleveland resident, said she worked for a labor agency for more than two years before being hired directly by Faurecia. Greenidge said she makes $9.29 an hour, and can't save for retirement or to send her 11-year-old daughter to college.
"That's not going to help me down the line in life," she said.
Union supporters say as many as half the workers at the plant work for a contract-labor agency. Sapienza said that while the number varies, the company expects 15 percent of its workforce will be temporary employees this year.
The UAW has organized some Southern auto parts plants in recent years, including Faurecia plants in Cottondale, Alabama, in 2012 and Louisville, Kentucky in 2013. The union lost a vote at a Faurecia plant in Tuscaloosa in 2013.
The National Labor Relations Board said Monday that no petition has been filed seeking a union vote at Faurecia. At least 30 percent of non-managers must sign a petition for the board to set a vote. Faurecia recognized the UAW without an election in Louisville after a majority of workers there signed union-support cards.
The latest Faurecia effort is similar to the Nissan push, including a community coalition supporting workers. That helps offset the many business and political leaders who are openly hostile to organized labor in Mississippi, where just 4.5 percent of workers were represented by unions in 2014 — the third-lowest rate of any state.
The Rev. Edward Duvall, pastor of Homestretch Baptist Church in Cleveland, said he's backing the effort. He said he has relatives and friends who quit because of low wages or can't come to church because they work seven days a week. He likened the conditions to exploitation he faced as a farm worker in the Delta as a boy.
"It's the same thing 40 years later," Duvall said.