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Coco Tembo has worked in the plating department of Flex-N-Gate Guardian West in Urbana, Ill., for about three years. His constant companion on the job is Hexavalent Chromium.
But that’s no co-worker; it’s a chemical the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has determined can cause the following health problems with workplace exposure:
• Lung cancer in workers who breathe airborne hexavalent chromium.
• Irritation or damage to the nose, throat and lungs (respiratory tract) if hexavalent chromium is breathed at high levels.
• Irritation or damage to the eyes and skin if hexavalent chromium contacts these organs in high concentrations.
The plating department at Tembo’s Urbana plant and at Flex-N-Gate’s Veedersburg, Ind., plant have bumper plating lines, both of which rely heavily on the chemical to give car bumpers that they coat their shiny, plated look. The plating process starts with a rough-surfaced bumper that’s dipped into rows of tanks that coat them with nickel, chromium and other compounds, including hexavalent chromium, to give them a protective, “chrome” finish.
It looks great on the bumper, but workers at Flex-N-Gate pay a high health and safety price for that shiny gloss.
One of the more dangerous tasks they have is emptying the tanks and climbing inside to scrub them out. That puts their eyes, lungs and skin in even closer proximity to the dangerous chemicals, especially when protective procedures are enforced sporadically, if at all, and protective tools such as masks and goggles don’t always work properly.
“I get a nasty taste in my mouth from breathing the chemicals in the tanks,” said Tembo, “and sometimes the mist from black backcoating we spray on the bumpers gets into my eyes.”
The goggles some workers wear don’t fully cover their eyes.
Tembo and other co-workers at Flex-N-Gate have no voice on the job to change this dangerous situation. Joining together with other nonunionized workers at Flex-N-Gate to form their own union can improve their working conditions and safety on the job.
That’s what Tembo and other nonunion Flex-N-Gate workers are hoping for.
Currently, more than 900 Flex-N-Gate workers are unionized at plants in Michigan, Illinois and Canada. Tembo and his co-workers are among those at Flex-N-Gate who aren’t part of a union and now want a voice on the job, too.
The automotive supply company has been growing quickly throughout North America into a supplier of automotive parts beyond truck bumpers, including vehicle interiors, exterior plastic components and lighting.
As the company grows, the need for workers to have a voice on the job grows stronger. Unionized workers are hoping nonunion workers at several plants will join their ranks, including workers at plants in Urbana and Danville, Ill., Veedersburg and Covington, Ind., Grand Rapids and Battle Creek, Mich., Salem, Ohio, and Russellville, Ky.
The need couldn’t be more urgent, where worker health and safety is at stake every day.
“We know that we work around dangerous chemicals because we read the labels and warnings,” said Jules Sabin, Flex-N-Gate Guardian plating department worker in West Urbana, Ill. “The company has never told us what chemicals we are breathing and getting on our skin, or how they can make us sick.”
Eight-year Flex-N-Gate truck driver Shannon Landreth, who works at the company’s MasterGuard plant in Veedersburg, said he never knows what could go wrong with the truck he drives each day because the company ignores maintenance to save money.
“A lot of the fork trucks are beat up real bad and not fixed like they should be. Supervisors say it’s going to cost too much to get them fixed,” said Landreth.
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who directs the union’s Independents, Parts and Suppliers (IPS) Department, said nonunion and unionized workers alike at Flex-N-Gate realize the time is now for all workers to have a seat at the table.
“They are working hard to let workers at the other shops know that forming your own union is the right choice for workers, families and communities,” Estrada said.
For more information, visit flexngateworkersunite.org