by Valerie Verkamp
In what leaders say was a last resort, about 200 union members at Challenge Manufacturing went on strike Thursday, seeking better wages, benefits and fairer practices.
Neither temperatures in the low 30s nor a watchful eye could deter a small crowd chanting “I need more money,” from pacing outside of the 423,000-square foot facility at the KCI Intermodal Business Centre.
Challenge Manufacturing is a Michigan-based automotive manufacturer of assemblies and engineered formed products. Their production of automotive parts is supplied to the General Motors' Fairfax Assembly Plant, where Chevy Malibus are assembled.
“When we first started negotiations on Dec. 8, we told company officials we did not want to go on strike,” said Malcom Bennett, an employee of Challenge Manufacturing. “We have been very patient with the company and have tried to understand their side, but it has come to this.”
Employees said they bargained in good faith over wages, benefits and a fair contract but have been unable to reach common ground with their employer.
Many permanent employees said they are earning $12 an hour.
That is a far cry from the annual $44,850 wage the company touted when city officials assisted Challenge Manufacturing with securing a site in Platte County. To earn a wage of around $44,850, employees allege they would need to average about 61 hours a week—40 regular hours and 21 hours of overtime paid at time and a half.
“In their mindset, you work seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day and you might make $45,000,” said Bennett.
But employees say hours vary widely from week to week. Permanent employees claim they work anywhere from 35 to 78 hours a week at the facility.
And the workforce appears to be split with slightly more permanent employees than temps, claims Bennett.
“They want to overwhelm the UAW workers with temporary workers. They want to pay them (the temporary employees) more and keep our wages low,” he said. “We have been here a year and should get paid more than a temp who arrived yesterday.”
Although it may benefit companies to utilize temps and later hire the hardest-working ones as an employee, it can otherwise delay a person from immediately gaining full-time employment and benefits such as health, retirement and vacation time.
Rights of workers
Employees are also protesting what they allege are unfair practices, like “bathroom restrictions.” They claim a great deal of time is spent commuting to and from the restroom, leaving little time to use the restroom in their 10-minute breaks.
“They tell us we can't leave the line until 9 o’clock on the dot and we have to be back on the line at 9:10,” said an employee who asked to remain anonymous. “It takes us approximately a minute and a half to two minutes to walk to the restroom. A bell rings at 9:07 to signal us to return to our workstations.”
And when nature calls, it better be at break time, according to some workers. A female union employee alleges she feels harassed if she goes to the bathroom during a non-designated break time.
“On my way to the bathroom, a manager asked where I was going. I told him, I needed to go to the bathroom to take care of a personal lady situation. He told me I was not going to the bathroom and go back to the line to work.”
“They are tyrants,” alleged Bennett. “Driven by the bottom line. They have a favoritism mentality.”
Bennett claims company officials prohibit employees from leaving campus for lunch.
“There is a Wendy's a short distance up the road but we are not allowed to leave over our lunch period,” he said. “They tell us we will get written up and fired if we are caught at Wendy's. They don't even want food trucks to come and deliver food to us.”
Employees must either bring food from home or use the on-site vending machines, he alleges.
Back in 2015, City of Kansas City officials boasted how the development would boost surrounding businesses.
Councilman Scott Taylor said, “I think this will have a positive impact on the Zona Rosa Shopping District. “This adds 375 new people that will need to go out for lunch and maybe dinner.”
But if employees are prohibited from leaving for lunch, then nearby businesses probably aren't seeing the boost in sales that city officials highlighted.
As temperatures soared in the warehouse last summer, union workers claim management did not allow them to open dock doors.
“A thermometer read 126 degrees inside the warehouse,” said Bennett. Any little outdoor breeze would have helped, he alleged.
“We were given a popsicle break, but three to four minutes into the break and management still wasn't in there (to distribute our popsicle.) Then, they say 'here is your popsicle. Don't eat it on the line.' But they didn't allow us enough time,” said Michelle, an employee who claims she suffered a heart attack in the parking lot about two months ago.
“We are not exaggerating this,” said Bennett. “These people have worked very hard. They come from (big) families. They come from other countries.”
Some employees allege company officials promote less-qualified individuals over employees who have fairly demonstrated a strong work ethic, have seniority and might be more qualified for the position.
A manager brought a person aboard, Bennett claims, “who has never touched a machine, suddenly he became a lead, then a supervisor at the plant.”
“He had only been in the building for three months and he was made a supervisor. They gave a kid that was 19 years old a supervisor role and never posted the job opening. There were people more qualified to do it,” alleged Bennett.
The Landmark reached out to company officials on multiple occasions for comment on the claims made by some of their employees but as of press time no response from company officials has been received.
Challenge Manufacturing employees unionized toward the end of last year. After two months of unsuccessful negotiations on their first contract, employees made the decision to go on strike.
Most admit it will be tough to go without pay for any period but employees have said they will continue the strike for as long as it takes.
Bennett said he is hopeful, because Challenge employees in St. Louis and Irving, Tex. recently negotiated a new contract.
Challenge Manufacturing first began operations in Kansas City in December 2015. It was the culmination of many agencies coming together to bring good paying jobs to the area, including the Kansas City EDC, Platte County EDC, the Missouri Partnership and the Kansas City Area Development Council.
City officials approved the issuance of up to $56 million in industrial revenue bonds to help the company finance the purchase and installation of heavy equipment and machinery for the plant.