Current and former employees at New Flyer, a large manufacturer of electric buses that supplies public transit agencies across the country, say that they have faced a pattern of racial discrimination at the company’s manufacturing plants in California and Alabama. Workers are demanding that the company address what they call “race-based barriers and a culture at the plants permissive to direct and indirect racism.”
The New Flyer employees have been working with Jobs to Move America(JMA), a labor-backed group that has waged a years-long campaign to impose labor standards on the industry that New Flyer operates in. JMA has successfully negotiated “community benefit agreements” with BYD and Proterra, New Flyer’s main competitors. The agreements codify diversity-centered hiring practices and the formation of internal worker groups, making them somewhat akin to union contracts. Such agreements can also include commitments from companies to remain neutral during any union campaigns.
A newly released letter signed by three former employees of New Flyer’s Ontario, California plant, and by two anonymous current employees of the company’s Anniston, Alabama plant, levels six specific charges: that they heard racial slurs and racist remarks at work that were not dealt with; that a “good old boy” network of white supervisors holds back the careers of workers of color; that workers of color at the plant are paid less than their white counterparts; that Black workers have fewer opportunities for advancement at work than white workers; that they fear retaliation if they report racism to HR; and that when layoffs occurred at the Ontario plant, workers of color were let go before white workers.
The letter also cites a JMA-funded March 2021 study done by Emily Erickson, a professor at Alabama A&M University. That study, based on interviews of 100 workers at the Anniston New Flyer plant, found a $3.14 per hour pay gap between white and Black workers, and that Black workers were more likely to get injured at work and have unstable schedules. Two-thirds of Black workers surveyed said that racism was an issue on the job. (Publication of that study prompted a letter to the Anniston newspaper from New Flyer CEO Paul Soubry in which he wrote, “The limited and superficial survey results and JMA’s allegations against New Flyer of discrimination and wage disparity based on race, among other heavily charged accusations, is heinous.”)
“Black workers found it more challenging being there. Lack of access to promotions, being put on the front lines with harder jobs, being overlooked when they’re trying to get a promotion. Those are the types of stories we hear,” said Erica Ilheme, JMA’s Alabama-based Southern Director, who is helping the New Flyer workers organize. “We started hearing themes between our California and our Alabama workers that they felt racism was an issue at the plant. They want people to know what’s being said.”
One of the former New Flyer workers who signed the letter is Craig Mosby, a 52-year-old Black man who worked at the company’s Ontario, California plant from 2014 until 2017, when he was laid off. Mosby grew up in Alabama, and moved to California partly with the goal of escaping the racism he experienced in the deep South. But, he says, he soon found the same conditions on the west coast.
Mosby says that within three months of beginning work at New Flyer, more than half of the other Black workers he had started with had quit. They were driven out, he says, by discrimination from white supervisors, who hired their friends and family for supervisory positions while Black workers continued to toil in low level jobs. He says that white supervisors would force workers of color that they considered troublesome to do the hardest and riskiest job in the plant, drilling holes in stainless steel. He also says that workers were given “points,” demerits that marked them as bad employees, for going to see the doctor — Mosby, a military veteran with PTSD, says he got several points in a single month for going to weekly group therapy classes. He held onto his position by learning many different jobs inside the plant, but was finally let go in January 2017, right after receiving his first raise.
New Flyer of America spokesperson Lindy Norris disputed a number of the contentions in the letter, and said that JMA has been waging “a very public, aggressive and antagonistic attack on NFA” since the company rebuffed a 2012request to sign a community benefits agreement and a promise of union neutrality. In spurning an agreement with JMA and its allies, the company issued its own, less stringent “Community Benefits Framework,” which it touts prominently on its website and in public statements.
“We take any and all allegations of racism, sexism, toxic workforce culture, and pay inequity seriously, and have investigated singular and atypical incidents following multiple allegations made by JMA,” Norris said. “I can assure you we will vigorously investigate any new allegations made in this latest JMA letter to the fullest extent possible.” She said that layoffs at the Ontario plant “were made based on skill sets, and had nothing to do with race or color.” She also denied that the company has a racial pay discrimination issue, saying, “actual pay rates have nothing to do with age, gender or race, rather, pay rates are completely dependent on job class and experience levels.”
More than three quarters of New Flyer’s workforce in Canada and the United States is unionized, according to the company. The fact that their largest customers are public transit agencies in labor-friendly cities like New York and Los Angeles gives JMA strategic leverage for its campaign. But it remains to be seen how much that leverage will mean to the hundreds of Black workers in the Alabama plant — who say in their letter that they have dealt with coworkers wearing Confederate flag symbols, a racist manager who “insinuated that one of us was in a gang,” and a white coworker who said he’d like to “shoot Obama in the face.” (Because the current employees who signed the letter are anonymous, In These Times was not allowed to speak to either of them about their stories.)
Erica Ilheme says that part of the value of going public with the allegations of racism is simply to let workers’ voices be heard. “It’s important for workers to have a space to express issues of racism in a safe place,” she says. “If they do express it, they shouldn’t be met with denial or rejection of their feelings.”
For Craig Mosby, a single father to four children, his motivations for speaking out about his old employer are rooted in the future. “I want my grandchildren, or my great grandchildren, to be in a little bit better shape, or [be given] a little better opportunity. Or [to hear] the truth,” he says. “If there’s not an opportunity, let it be known. Don’t waste their time.”
This story was originally published by In These Times.