New Flyer’s southern U.S. operations are coming under increasing scrutiny by community activists who say the company has not lived up to promises it made after receiving incentives to set up operations there.
An organization called Jobs to Move America (JMA) — which is "dedicated to building an equitable, sustainable society by creating good jobs for all" — has been targeting transit equipment manufacturers like New Flyer because municipalities use federal funds to buy their equipment, and in many cases, the manufacturers receive subsidies.
About a year ago, JMA started legal action against New Flyer of America over what they believe to be false information New Flyer was claiming regarding job creation and wages and benefits to workers at a company facility in Ontario, Calif., a facility set up after receiving a US$500 million contract from the transit authority in Los Angeles.
And this week, it released a 22-page report called "Good Jobs Everywhere: Why Manufacturing Jobs Should Advance Equity and Strengthen Communities" which, among other things, said some of the 750 workers at New Flyer’s Anniston, Ala., plant allege workplace inequalities including race-based discrimination, intimidation, mandatory overtime and anti-union activity.
Paul Soubry, CEO of NFI Group Inc., the parent company of New Flyer’s various operating divisions, took umbrage with much of what was in the report, claiming JMA has made "disparaging comments and published misleading reports to our customers and the media." He believes JMA is targeting the company partly because it chose to work with another organization.
"In 2017, New Flyer chose not to partner with JMA to develop a community benefits agreement in L.A. County for a contract with LA Metro — but rather made employment commitments directly to our customer and engaged a third party called the Transportation Diversity Council (TDC) to assist with workforce development programming," Soubry said.
JMA officials acknowledge that while New Flyer might not have the most egregious workplace equity violations in Alabama, it is being singled out because the company and its customers are so deeply intertwined with the public sector.
"You have to start somewhere, because public money is being used to purchase their product and they have received an incentive from the state. It’s a good place to set a precedent with other companies," Patricia Todd, the head of JMA’s southern operations and a former 12-year state legislator from Alabama, said.
New Flyer received US$1.4 million from city, county and state governments to renovate and expand the former North American Bus Industries plant acquired by New Flyer in 2013.
"In Alabama, we have given away about (US)$4 billion in tax incentives to companies to move to Alabama," Todd said. "The concern is the south is giving away money at the expense of public education and other services that are needed. We have expanded Medicaid, over-crowded prisons, no mental health services, and meanwhile, the state is handing out incentives like it’s their money."
Specifically, JMA is trying to get New Flyer to negotiate a community benefits agreement (CBA), a relatively recent invention to ensure worker and community needs are met and allow for real returns on investment in new infrastructure when there is taxpayer-funded investment in the private sector.
"My point is that we are addressing the issues," Soubry said. "We have policies in place and a third party group helping. What I don’t have is JMA. We are very happy with TDC. They have been a great partner."
Soubry said he takes issue with what he says is a connection between JMA and the Communications Workers of America union, which represents New Flyer workers in St. Cloud and Crookston, Minn. While Soubry said he does not necessarily invite union organizers in, he said it is his employees who decide. A CWA official said New Flyer has implemented an anti-union campaign.
"The reality is that with manufacturing in the South there has been a lot of hard fought and hard lost labour battles. The bottom line is that these are not the same jobs that exist in Winnipeg and we really want that to be," said Sophia Reuss, an employee with JMA based in New York.
JMA officials met with Chris Stoddart, the president of New Flyer of America this week in New York at the annual meetings of the American Public Transportation Association to discuss a CBA.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 6:09 AM CDT: Adds photos