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Published: Thursday, 4/17/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

Toledo plant workers walk out, strike, end strike all in 8 hours at Piston Automotive

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Piston Automotive employees, from left, Amanda Dickerson, Rae-Lyn Fobbs, and Sonya Hill picket in support of forming a union in North Toledo. About 50 employees, other union members, and supporters turned out to picket Thursday. The dispute ended about eight hours after it started. Piston Automotive employees, from left, Amanda Dickerson, Rae-Lyn Fobbs, and Sonya Hill picket in support of forming a union in North Toledo. About 50 employees, other union members, and supporters turned out to picket Thursday. The dispute ended about eight hours after it started.
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A strike at a Toledo auto parts supplier that threatened to disrupt production of the Jeep Cherokee ended Thursday about eight hours after it started.

Workers at Piston Automotive on East Alexis Road walked out of the plant around 9 a.m. Thursday to protest what they said was the company’s refusal to recognize union authorization cards. Officials with the United Auto Workers said the cards showed there was overwhelming support to unionize the plant.

As of 5 p.m., employees of the minority-owned firm were heading back to work after the company’s president agreed to recognize the cards and promised no retribution would be taken against anyone who went on strike.

“Early next week we’ll turn the cards over to a neutral [party], and the neutral will verify the cards. If we have a majority, and we do, then Piston has agreed to recognize the UAW as the collective bargaining unit for the plant here on Alexis Road,” said Ken Lortz, the director of UAW Region 2B.

Thursday’s strike came after what union officials characterized as two months of fruitless discussions with Piston Automotive, of Redford, Mich.

Mr. Lortz said Piston officials asked the UAW that the cards be thrown out and a new round collected, questioning whether people knew what they were signing.

“The fact they came out of the plant this morning to further fight for recognition verifies they knew what they were doing when they signed the cards,” Mr. Lortz said Thursday.

Union officials said Piston recently raised the same objections at a plant in Detroit that supplies Ford, ultimately convincing the UAW to gather a second round of authorization cards. However, the company initially refused to verify those as well, and the UAW was prepared to strike. A last-minute agreement kept workers on the job.

A call to Piston’s headquarters seeking comment was not returned.

Tim McCarthy — a labor employment specialist and partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick — said there are two routes workers can take to organize and join a union.

“Under the law, employers are entitled to voluntarily recognize the union on the basis of cards and a card check, provided the workers have the majority of support,” he said. “An employer is not required to recognize the union based on a card check, but it can do so.”

He said the second way is a traditional union election by secret ballot.

“The result is the same, that the preference of the workers is accurately reflected in the outcome,” Mr. McCarthy said. “From the employer’s perspective, the traditional campaign is an opportunity for the union and the employer to explain why they believe unionization or being union-free is the better option.

Bruce Baumhower, president of Local 12 of the United Auto Workers union, talks with other supporters of Piston Automotive employees during a strike outside the Piston Automotive plant. About 50 employees, other union members, and supporters turned out to walk the picket line Thursday in support of Piston Automotive employees' efforts to unionize. Bruce Baumhower, president of Local 12 of the United Auto Workers union, talks with other supporters of Piston Automotive employees during a strike outside the Piston Automotive plant. About 50 employees, other union members, and supporters turned out to walk the picket line Thursday in support of Piston Automotive employees' efforts to unionize.
THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

“And of course, employers often prefer that route to give employees a chance to be educated on their options.”

Mr. McCarthy continued: “The employer is entitled to say, ‘We’re not willing to make this decision on the basis of a card check. The union at that point has the option to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to seek a representation election. A vote then occurs usually within 30 to 45 days.”

After the election, either side can contest the results, he added.

Piston was founded in the mid-1990s by former professional basketball player Vinnie Johnson. The company announced plans to come to Toledo in 2012 after winning a contract with Chrysler to supply chassis parts for the new Jeep Cherokee.

At the time, state documents said the firm expected to create 84 jobs. Union officials said Thursday that the plant had about 70 hourly employees working on two shifts.

The plant is an important supplier for Jeep, and having the plant shut down for any significant length of time would likely stall Jeep production. There were reports that Cherokee production was affected by the strike, but only temporarily.

Billie Powser, who has worked at the Piston plant for a year, said employees are working 60 hours a week, just like their counterparts at the Toledo Assembly Complex, but don’t have the same pay or benefits. She said organizing with the UAW would help get them closer to parity with those workers.

“I like a union,” she said. “They’re there to back you up. They’re there to back up the rights of people.”

A group of about 50 striking workers and supporters picketed outside the plant Thursday. There was a brief moment of tension when someone who was apparently an employee of another company at the industrial complex drove up to the picket line and began taking photographs of the pickets. A shouting match quickly ensued, but the altercation did not get physical.

Two anti-union protesters also set up a couple hundred yards away from the pickets, but didn’t interact with the union members.

Business writer Jon Chavez contributed to this report.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134 or on Twitter @BladeAutoWriter.



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