It’s a familiar story across America, especially in the Midwest: a factory closes, announces it’s moving operations to Mexico or overseas. Public officials lament the loss of jobs, families suffer – you know the miserable, all-too-common rest.
The opposite, happier tale is one we don’t hear quite so often, but that’s just what’s happening in and around Columbus, Indiana, 40 miles south of Indianapolis.
There, Faurecia, a massive French automotive parts manufacturer recently expanded its U.S. operations, spending more than $70 million to lease and equip a new 400,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility that will create hundreds of jobs in the community over the next several months as it ramps up production.
In an even rarer twist, Faurecia and its local management have embraced and partnered with the IBEW deep inside the right-to-work state, where public officials often seem to love nothing more than boasting about low union density.
“Faurecia is a real success story,” said Sixth District International Representative Jeff Carter. “The relationship wasn’t always so easy, but we’ve had a lot of cooperation in recent years, and it’s a welcome change, especially with the new plant and the growth this company is experiencing.”
Just seven miles up the road, Columbus-based Local 1424 already represents another 870 Faurecia employees at the Gladstone plant, where line-workers spend their shifts making light consumer and commercial catalytic converters, the exhaust components that help reduce toxic emissions from nearly every vehicle on the road.
A year ago, the single-employer local counted just 356 of those 870 as members. Because of Indiana’s right-to-work law, passed in 2012, Local 1424 bargained for everyone, but more than half chose not to pay dues or partake of the IBEW’s many other benefits of membership.
“That had to change,” said Business Manager Jerry Wagner. “We needed to do something to convince these folks that they were better off joining the union and being part of what we’re trying to do here.”
Help came from far and wide, and organizers, led by Sixth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Lynn Arwood, drew up a plan to make the pitch for IBEW membership.
“What we realized pretty early on was that a lot of these people simply hadn’t been asked to join the union,” Arwood said. “So when they were, a lot of them were excited to be a part of the IBEW.” The sale was a relatively easy one, with most employees uncertain about their place at the new plant and concerned about what would happen at the existing one. “They wanted a voice in their company, and they recognized that there was strength in numbers,” Arwood said.
In the end, more than 50 organizers braved the frigid February temperatures to knock on 600 doors over the course of several days. The blitz resulted in more than 90 new members. “And we’re still not finished following up,” said 1424’s president, George “Frankie” Ledbetter, who works at the Gladstone plant.
With membership now topping 50 percent at Gladstone, and management at the new plant embracing the IBEW as a full partner, Ledbetter sees a bright future for Local 1424 and for Faurecia’s growing workforce. “Before things improved,” he said, “people felt uneasy going to human resources for anything. But now, things are really positive, and it feels great to be working together with management.”
The new approach to working with the union is slowly but surely working its way into the relationship at Gladstone too, evidenced by the company’s recent request to fly the IBEW flag alongside the company’s own at both facilities. “I’ve never had a company ask to do that,” Carter said.
In the coming weeks, managers at the new Faurecia plant will also welcome Sixth District Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff to the facility for a tour and grand opening.
“It really does feel like a new day,” said Carter, who recently helped wrap up contract negotiations for the new facility and is preparing to start talks over a new contract at Gladstone early next year.
“I’ve been in manufacturing for my entire career,” he said. “It’s been heart-wrenching over the years to see these people you’ve worked with lose their jobs at plants all over the Midwest. For this relationship with Faurecia to be heading in the opposite, more positive direction is such a rewarding thing to be a part of.”
Ruhmkorff echoed those sentiments, and looked toward a hopeful future. “These hard working men and women deserve to be treated with respect,” he said, “and all of these signs pointing to even better things to come at Faurecia – well, we hope this can be a model for employers who choose to keep good jobs in the U.S.”