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Selma, Ala. – The U.S. Department of Labor has petitioned a federal court to order Lear Corp., a major supplier to Hyundai, to reinstate a whistleblower who was fired for speaking out about getting sick at the company’s plant in Selma.
In its complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, the Labor Department also demands that Lear issue back pay to Kim King, who was terminated in 2015 for organizing around health and safety concerns at the plant, and seeks back wages for two other workers who were suspended for raising concerns about dangerous conditions at the factory. In addition to charging the company itself, the Labor Department argues that three Lear managers are personally responsible for providing back pay to the workers who were terminated and suspended.
The DOL’s filing marks the latest in a series of federal crackdowns against Lear’s treatment of workers at its Selma factory: The National Labor Relations Board has charged Lear with breaking federal labor laws, and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for multiple serious violations of federal health and safety laws. The workers in Selma are in the process of organizing a union with the United Auto Workers in order to find long-term solutions to their concerns about safety and other workplace issues at the plant, which makes foam seat cushions for Hyundai.
“I’m feeling more confident than ever that we will win the good, safe jobs that we have been fighting for, and that the Selma community deserves,” said Kim King, a former production worker at Lear’s Selma plant who’s termination in March 2015 is at the center of the DOL’s lawsuit. “We always knew we had the right to speak out about health and safety issues at Lear. This action by the federal government should send a signal not just to Lear, but to companies across the country that they have to respect the rights of workers to fight for a safe workplace.”
The DOL’s complaint alleges an extensive pattern of unlawful discrimination by Lear managers against workers who had raised health and safety concerns, including forcing workers to perform physically demanding tasks in a manner that could cause injury; isolating them from their colleagues at the plant; and denying leave without explanation. The complaint demands that the company and the plant managers halt their discriminatory actions and to post a notice stating that Lear will not discriminate against any employee raising concerns about health and safety.
The DOL entered its complaint in court almost exactly one year from when Ms. King participated in a delegation to Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, AL, to deliver a letter asking the company to “make the necessary investments to ensure good, safe, fair working conditions throughout its supply chain.” The delegation was part of a series of worker and community actions linked to the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” protest that galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act. Today is the 51st anniversary of that march over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The DOL’s filing marks a decisive move by the federal agency to protect whistleblowers and uphold workers’ rights at a time when conditions are deteriorating throughout the auto industry and the auto supply chain. Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of all auto workers are now employed at parts plants like the factory operated by Lear.
“It’s unusual for the Department of Labor to take such aggressive action, and it suggests two key things – that Lear has committed egregious violations of the law, and that the federal government is increasingly intent on protecting workers who speak out against illegal actions by their employer,” said Peter Dooley, a health and safety expert at the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “The workers at this plant are role models for speaking out about the dangerous conditions they faced on the job, and the federal government should continue to monitor the plant to ensure that their rights are protected.”
John Newquist, an occupational safety and health consultant at Newquist Safety and former OSHA safety official, added: “When companies like Lear break the law, as is alleged by the DOL, it drives a race to the bottom that undercuts standards for workers across the industry. It’s critical for the federal government to prosecute bad actors, and this action by the DOL should encourage workers across the economy to stand up any time their employers break the law.”
In January, the National Labor Relations Board charged the company with illegally threatening on multiple occasions to close its Selma facility in an effort to intimidate workers who are organizing for higher pay and basic health and safety protections.The Labor Board also alleged that Lear supervisors repeatedly interrogated workers over their support for organizing a union at the plant and threatened them with job loss, blacklisting, and loss of benefits.
In 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency issued citations against Lear for multiple serious violations of federal health and safety laws at its Selma plant, and in June 2015, OSHA issued a Hazard Alert letter to Lear calling on the company to take “necessary” steps to protect workers at its Selma factory from exposure to TDI, a hazardous chemical used in the production of car seat cushions and headrests.
Lear is a publically-traded Fortune 500 company with 219 locations in 34 countries. It has 125,000 employees and sales of $17.7 billion in 2014.
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