Volvo Trucks to restart Virginia factory as strike continues

FILE - In a Jan. 6, 2011, file photo, workers install parts on a truck on the Volvo truck assembly line at the Volvo plant in Dublin, Va. A tentative labor deal between Volvo Trucks North America and a union representing nearly 3,000 workers who have gone on strike twice in 2021 at the Virginia truck plant was rejected by the striking workers, late Friday, July 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) (Steve Helber, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NORFOLK, Va. – Volvo Trucks North America says some striking workers crossed picket lines Monday at a southwestern Virginia factory as the company plans to restart production.

Spokesman John Mies wouldn't say how many United Auto Workers members went inside the factory in Dublin, Virginia, near Roanoke. But he said in an email that it will take a few days to get assembly lines back up and running at the plant, which employs 2,900 UAW workers.

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Union members at the heavy truck assembly plant have voted down three tentative contract agreements reached with local union negotiators, with the most recent rejection coming on Friday. They initially went on strike in April.

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said about 10 workers crossed the lines Monday morning, in addition to a “handful” of union workers who had gone to work earlier. He said he didn't have exact numbers. Rothenberg said that in any strike, a small number of workers cross picket lines.

Workers will vote again on the third agreement Wednesday. “Our final offer is on the table," Mies said in an email Monday.

The recalcitrant strikers could be a sign that workers feel more emboldened because employers are having a hard time finding skilled workers.

“There’s less fear of never finding another job, and that does mean that the gamble for the membership is not as severe,” said Arthur Wheaton, a labor expert who teaches at Cornell University’s Worker Institute.

While workers may not find a job quite as good as the one they have at Volvo in southwestern Virginia, they could be thinking: “‘If they fire us or replace us, how many people have the skill set to build these heavy trucks? ... There’s not a lot of us around. And we think you’re gonna have to pay us.’”

Volvo could take a risk by hiring permanent employees to replace striking workers because the new workers may not be at the same skill level, he said. “They aren’t just building a little tiny golf cart. These things are huge, and they have a lot of parts to them.”

On Friday, Volvo trucks said in a statement that it would implement terms of the third agreement, reached with local union leaders on July 1. Returning employees would get the agreement's wages and benefits.

A copy of the third agreement shows workers with one year of experience would start at $20.60 per hour, progressing to a top wage of $30.92 when the contract ends in 2026.

In a video message posted to Facebook on Sunday, the president of the UAW local at the plant urged workers not to go back to their jobs.

“Basically they’re trying to break our union, telling people to cross the line,” Matt Blondino said.

Blondino said that a majority “yes” vote Wednesday would send workers back to the plant for production on July 19. Most would get a sign-on bonus of $2,000.

If members vote to reject the deal, Blondino said they would have to wait for the company to respond. If Volvo sets a date for workers to return after Wednesday's vote, then the union can file an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board, he said.

Kristin Dziczek, senior vice president at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, said the NLRB under President Joe Biden is more likely to look favorably on a union complaint than the board under former President Donald Trump.

She also said the company could try to hire replacement workers, although that might be hard in a climate where employers are having trouble finding employees.

“The workers really do have more power than they would have had even a year ago,” she said. “There’s lots of jobs. And they’ve got a president and NLRB that will back them.”

The previous contract, reached in 2016, was to expire in mid-March. Negotiations began in February. Workers went on strike from April 17 to 30 and returned to work as they were voting on the first agreement. But members rejected that offer in May.

The company announced another six-year tentative agreement later that month, but it was rejected June 6.

The UAW has said previously that workers had concerns about health care, wages, health and safety issues, working conditions, plant shift operations, contractual time off and wage progression.

Volvo says the 1.6 million-square-foot (nearly 150,000-square-meter) Dublin plant is the largest manufacturer of Volvo trucks in the world. It is one of the largest private sector employers in the region, with about 3,300 employees, 2,900 represented by the UAW.

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