Published on POLITICO PRO.
By Danielle Muoio
08/06/2020 05:00 AM EDT
New Flyer, a major bus supplier for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is facing complaints of discrimination at its factory in Alabama and accusations it’s trying to “launder” its image through a New York-based associate.
Workers have reported experiencing race-based discrimination and sexual harassment at New Flyer’s factory in Anniston, Ala., according to a new report by Jobs To Move America — a nonprofit that advocates for worker equity. Workers also reported working far beyond the standard work week with 63 percent saying they had come in contact with toxic chemicals.
The data comes from a 2019 survey conducted by researchers at Alabama A&M University and subsequent interviews conducted by Jobs To Move America, which is pushing for New York Attorney General Tish James to investigate the company’s New York-based affiliate, the Transportation Diversity Council.
“In the survey, African American respondents were more than twice as likely to say that as far as they knew discrimination was a big problem in their workplace and 43 percent of those who responded reported being denied promotions, feeling isolated and being treated as if they were incompetent because of their race,” said Madeline Janis, the executive director of Jobs To Move America. “There’s so much that this company needs to deal with to have a real reckoning with racial injustice and good corporate practice.”
The company is a major supplier to public transit agencies across the nation. Since 2017, the MTA has purchased $775 million worth of buses from New Flyer — including a recent purchase of 15 electric buses and charging units.
Ken Lovett, a spokesperson for the MTA, said the authority has “no tolerance for discrimination by our vendors against their employees.”
“We expect all our contractors to treat their workers lawfully and with respect,” Lovett said. “If there are claims of harassment, discrimination or abuse, they ought to be referred to the proper authorities and investigated. Period.”
Following its survey, Jobs To Move America began pushing New Flyer to create a community benefits agreement with a coalition of residents, civil rights groups and workers, Janis said — a legally enforceable pact to create stronger workplace standards.
She said New Flyer ultimately rejected those demands.
Paul Soubry, the CEO of New Flyer Industries, said the survey results cited in the report were skewed — they weren’t focused entirely on New Flyer, but looked at a broader swath of the Alabama workforce. He said internal surveys indicate close to 90 percent of workers at the plant think it’s a “great place to work.”
In January, a few months after the survey was issued, New Flyer brought on a consultant, the Transportation Diversity Council, to “build upon New Flyer’s existing workforce diversity and … administer local agreements with transit agencies, community partners, and local agencies, all focused on unique community needs,” according to a press release at the time.
The Transportation Diversity Council has since released a community benefits framework, which promises the company will “seek to employ new hires that are representative of the communities in which we operate to ensure that all voices and viewpoints are represented.”
Janis points out the “benefits framework” isn’t legally enforceable and accused TDC of engaging in an “astroturf” campaign — a facade of addressing worker concerns without actually doing so.
“We think this is emblematic of a pretty common corporate practice of essentially reputation laundering,” Janis said.
Soubry accused Jobs To Move America of maligning his company because it’s working with a different consultant on worker conditions.
“We chose another partner and because JMA is not happy with that situation they’re obviously trying to tarnish our image and our friends at TDC,” he said.
It’s not the first time the group has leveled accusations against New Flyer.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that New Flyer faced fraud accusations in a court case that revealed the company had underpaid worker wages and misrepresented the value of benefits in a $500 million contract with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Dwayne Sampson, president and CEO of Transportation Diversity Council, insisted the non-profit company was legitimately trying to address worker concerns and conditions.
“Engaging with New Flyer to help them recruit [and] retain non-traditional workers in the bus manufacturing business — it was genuine,” he said in an interview. “We don’t look to rubber stamp anything — this is our business, we support our community, this is something we’ve been doing for 10 years and it’s a labor of love for our community.”
Jobs To Move America is not convinced.
The group is filing a legal complaint with New York Attorney General Tish James, calling on her office and the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether TDC is acting in a way that conflicts with its status as a not-for-profit. Janis cites a number of issues, including whether TDC has falsely claimed it doesn’t engage in lobbying, and whether its pursuit and defense of New Flyer is consistent with the group’s tax-exempt restrictions.
Sampson denied wrongdoing when given a description of the complaint.
“We want public agencies, like the New York MTA, to take responsibility for the conditions of the workers and communities that are building their equipment,” Janis said. “There are various ways to do that: one is to adopt policies to insist and ensure there are good jobs created and there is equity, as well as mechanisms to deal with racial discrimination.”