Biden to visit New Flyer plant, a ‘green jobs’ – and union – success story

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Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the New Flyer Bus Co. on Thursday will showcase how the U.S. economy can be revitalized with new, “green” technologies. But it also can be an opportunity to highlight another of the Obama administration’s priorities – the Employee Free Choice Act.

Biden will convene the second meeting of the “Middle Class Task Force” at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at New Flyer – one of those rare companies that is doing well in today’s dismal economy. In 2008, the company hired more than 90 people at its St. Cloud plant and has operated around the clock to fulfill a two-year, $4.1 billion backlog of orders.

New Flyer manufactures buses for some of the largest transit agencies and cities in the United States and Canada and is a leader in the production of hybrid and low-emission vehicles. Biden and the task force – which consists of Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and a number of other Cabinet members and federal officials – will tout the company as an example of the kind of investment being promoted in the new federal stimulus bill and the Obama administration’s proposed budget.

Most of the 650 workers at the St. Cloud plant are represented by Communications Workers of America Local 7304. They chose union representation through majority sign-up – the method that would become an option for all workers if Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act.

When New Flyer opened the St. Cloud facility in 1999, it already had a unionized operation in Crookston, Minn., and another in Winnipeg, Manitoba. CWA Local 7304 represented the workers in Crookston, while the Canadian Auto Workers had a contract covering workers in Winnipeg.

At the request of workers, the management of the St. Cloud plant agreed to forego the lengthy and often contentious National Labor Relations Board election process and instead agreed to recognize the union if a majority of workers signed cards.

Organizers “built a strong inside committee, stayed focused on the workers’ issues — dignity, job security and better health care — and built a majority in just 13 days,” the CWA News reported.

On May 11, 2002, New Flyer management recognized CWA Local 7304 and began contract negotiations. The first contract instituted wage and benefit increases for the bargaining unit, which includes assembly technicians, painters and paint assistants, welders, maintenance technicians and building and grounds workers.

“It’s a good place to work,” said CWA Minnesota State Council President Tim Lovaasen. “They build hybrid buses. They’re union. It hits all the points Obama has been talking about.”

Critics of the Employee Free Choice Act have claimed unionization will cost jobs – but that’s certainly not the case at New Flyer, where employment has grown steadily over the last several years and the company is profitable, according to its recent earnings statements. (See www.newflyer.com)

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, most private sector workers would be able to choose union representation through majority sign-up if they wanted. Currently, management – not workers – gets to decide the process.

Local 7304 President Dave Rock and other union officials will probably be taking part in the town meeting with the Middle Class Task Force, but details were still being worked out Tuesday afternoon, Lovaasen said. The event is open to the public and a number of workers from the plant and area union members are expected to attend.

People who cannot attend may submit questions through the task force’s website, http://www.whitehouse.gov/strongmiddleclass/

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