A labor struggle is brewing in Selma, Ala., as President Obama, former presidents, Civil Rights era-veterans, journalists (including Labor South), activists and regular folks gathered there this past weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bloody first march across Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Workers at the Renosol Seating plant in Selma, a supplier of the Hyundai plant in Montgomery 50 miles to the east, say their low-wage jobs have only gotten them potentially life-debilitating illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer.
"This is a big week in Selma," said Kim King, a seating plant worker in a press release from the United Auto Workers, "but we think it's also important to lift up the voices of those of us living and working in Selma today. … I am inspired by the history of my town leading the voter and civil rights movement. Today my co-workers and I stand as leaders in fighting for dignity at work."
King said workers at her 90-employee factory typically earn $8 an hour and even after 10 years seniority only make as much as $12 an hour. Yet many experience "terrible breathing problems" as a result of exposure to chemicals such as toluene diisocyanate, also known as TDI, which is used in producing the foam inside car seats.
An NBC News study, conducted by Yale University's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, showed that most employees tested by last July had been exposed to the chemical, which can cause asthma. Workers filed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Last August OSHA announced it planned to inspect every auto parts plant across the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia as a result of high rates of injuries and safety issues. The inspections will take roughly a year.
According to statements by officials with the Lear Group, which owns Renosol, to Alabama Media Group blogger Erin Edgemon, the company conducted its own study and concluded the "Selma plant is safe for our employees."
"We know we have the power to improve pay and conditions at our workplace," King said. "I am standing with my co-workers in Selma ready to fight."
King is a member of Seating Workers United, an organization supported by the UAW. She and a handful of other workers at the plant hope to be able to organize into a union there to represent their interests before management.
"America needs good jobs and when we come together we have the power to make our jobs and our lives better," says the Seating Workers United web site. "Through unity we have the power to win."
A half century ago this past Saturday (March 7), Selma became the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement as peaceful marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march to Montgomery and were brutally attacked by club-wielding policemen who beat marchers and sprayed them with tear gas.
A second effort -- with federal protection -- on March 25, 1965, was successful as Martin Luther King Jr. and others led an estimated 25,000 protesters across the bridge in the march. The Selma-to-Montgomery march became a catalyst to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
These events have been depicted in the recent Oscar-winning movie Selma.
Common, the rap artist who co-wrote the Oscar-winning song "Glory" from the movie, has been active in the labor movement and a vocal supporter of the right of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., to join the UAW if they choose. The Grammy Award-winning artist performed at a sold-out concert on behalf of the Nissan workers at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., last year.
In related news, workers at the Faurecia SA automotive seating plant in Cleveland, Miss., have protested their low wages, poor working conditions, and the hiring of temporary workers at their plant. They also have expressed the desire for an election to determine whether they can join the UAW.
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.
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