Union members protest at Flex-N-Gate plant in Arlington

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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ARLINGTON -- A few miles from Cowboys Stadium, the United Auto Workers are trying to mount a serious offense against Shahid "Shad" Khan, the self-made, Pakistani-born billionaire industrialist who bought the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars last year.

In Arlington and in five other states, the UAW organized demonstrations on Wednesday to show support at Khan's auto part plants, where they claim workers are seeking to form a union.

About 40 percent of workers at his Flex-N-Gate Corp. are unionized -- but only at plants where there already had been representation when he acquired them, said Cindy Estrada, a UAW vice president in Detroit. In Brazil, Spain, Canada and most recently in Puebla, Mexico, Flex-N-Gate workers have unions, the UAW said.

More than 60 union members from area General Motors, Bell Helicopter, Chrysler and Triumph Aerostructures facilities walked the perimeter of Khan's Flex-N-Gate assembly unit in Arlington, whose roughly 80 employees bundle parts for the nearby GM plant. In September 2010 the UAW lost a union-representation election, but the National Labor Relations Board found the company employed unfair tactics and illegally fired three pro-union workers.

Wednesday, union supporters chanted slogans and carried signs demanding a nonpoverty wage at Khan's company. The UAW claims that some Flex-N-Gate employees earn as little as $10 an hour, forcing a number to rely on the federal food stamp program.

The Urbana, Ill.-based manufacturer did not respond to emailed questions or a request for an interview, but did issue a statement: "Flex-N-Gate associates receive competitive wages, enjoy quality growth opportunities and benefit from our ongoing commitment to safe working conditions. The vast majority of Flex-N-Gate associates are happy with their employment."

The UAW wants to poke holes in Khan's image, burnished by profiles in Forbes magazine and on CBS' 60 Minutes. The bushy-maned, handlebar-mustached NFL owner arrived in Illinois as a 16-year-old college student from Lahore, Pakistan, the son of a math professor. He joined a fraternity, immersed himself in American culture and, while an engineering major, took a part-time job at Flex-N-Gate, which made bumpers and after-market truck parts.

He stayed eight years before leaving to start his own company, which created a one-piece pickup bumper. The Big Three automakers passed him over, but Japanese manufacturers struck ever bigger deals with Khan, who eventually took over Flex-N-Gate and built it into a $3 billion company.

His personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes at $2.5 billion. The American dream realized, he bought the Jaguars on his second attempt to land an NFL franchise.

"We don't want to deny Shahid Khan his big yacht, football team and golf course," said the UAW's Estrada. "But when you're at Flex-N-Gate 20 years, still earning $10 an hour and can't afford to go to a movie, go out to dinner, buy insurance or buy a car with parts that you built, how does that help the economy? Khan can afford to do better."

A first-generation immigrant himself, Estrada claimed Khan purposely hired Latino and, in Urbana, Congolese immigrants who feel too insecure to buck management.

Flex-N-Gate says it abides by the Global Sullivan Principles and an International Labor Organization declaration that guarantees workers' rights to free assembly and collective bargaining. But the UAW says labor relations have been less than stellar.

In December 2011, an NLRB judge agreed.

Administrative Judge Margaret Brakebusch found that Flex-N-Gate in Arlington engaged in unfair labor practices by "interrogating" workers about their union sympathies before balloting on whether to form a UAW local, promising benefits to those who'd vote against it, threatening to fire some for being pro-union, and actually terminating three team leaders -- Chris Rainey, Alsee Irving III and Rocky Lloyd -- on Nov. 5, 2010, for having participated in union activities.

It got personal. Aside from wearing pro-UAW buttons, one of the three donned a union shirt emblazoned with the plant manager's name, Mike Luckie.

The company argued that the three were fired not for being pro-union, but for economic reasons. Although the men said they'd accept demotions, Luckie said it would have "hurt morale" to keep them on, according to the NLRB ruling.

Brakebusch ordered the trio reinstated with back pay. The UAW says that Flex-N-Gate has rehired the men but is appealing the ruling.

"We feel that 'Shad' Khan, the owner of Flex-N-Gate, has prospered immensely as a direct result of all the hard work and dedication of his employees," said Belinda J. Langley, a UAW bargaining chairwoman at the Arlington GM plant, who demonstrated despite an injured leg. As a billionaire, Langley said, Khan should give workers "a more equitable share of the profits realized by their blood, sweat and tears."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter

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