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For Tanya Brown, a painter at electric school bus maker Thomas Built Buses in North Carolina, being in a union has helped her finish her degree and is creating equal opportunities for women in the workplace.

College business courses are not typically known for teaching pro-union values. But for Tanya Brown, an assembly technician at the Thomas Built Buses factory in High Point, NC, what she’s learned in class has strengthened her belief in the need for workers to get together and fight for better working conditions.

In the course of her studies, Tanya learned about employment law–all the rights and benefits U.S. companies legally owe their workers. It’s not very much, it turns out: in many states, companies don’t have to provide paid sick or family leave, vacation time, or health care benefits. As a union leader, she often explains to her coworkers at Thomas, “A lot of the benefits you have, you have because of the union; you don’t get them because the company is mandated to give them to you.”

Tanya was able to complete her degree while working at Thomas thanks in large part to a scholarship fund created under her union contract. The scholarship fund is one of several ways UAW Local 5287’s contract provides for employees to gain new skills and advance in their careers. For example, Thomas workers can qualify to receive training in one of the trades, leading to even higher-skilled, higher-paying work. Trades at Thomas include robotic technicians, electricians, and tool and die makers.

Tanya works in the paint department of the C2 plant at Thomas, which builds school buses and is transitioning to build electric school buses. She prepares the buses for painting, sanding and wiping down the bus before it gets its prime coat. Her enthusiasm for her work is contagious. “It’s a really neat process to watch because you just start with this steel … they start building with the floor of the bus. And just to watch the whole process down the line–it’s a really cool process.”

At first, Tanya was reluctant to go into manufacturing. But she had a lot of friends who were working at the Freightliner plant in nearby Cleveland, NC, another UAW shop. They insisted it was a great job, and eventually Tanya decided to give it a try because of the pay and benefits. Benefits–such as family medical and dental coverage, paid sick leave, and a strong pension–were especially crucial, since she was a single mom with two kids: one in high school and another in college. In the end, she found that she really liked the work, too.

Manufacturing jobs have not always been welcoming to women. Even today, women make up only a quarter of workers in the vehicle manufacturing sector. The causes of this disparity are many: socialized gender roles, discrimination and harassment, and a lack of flexibility and room for professional growth.

As for Tanya, she describes consistently great experiences at Thomas. “To me, pretty much, we’re treated equally … The opportunity is there. But then you have to look at it; if the UAW wasn’t here to instill a process where everybody gets a fair opportunity at a job, then the company could always say, ‘No, we’re not putting a woman in that position. She can’t do that job.’” She has confidence knowing that if she felt she was being treated unfairly, she could get the union involved to address it.

Every day, the yellow school buses Tanya and her colleagues build help provide an opportunity for millions of schoolchildren to have a ride to school and receive an education. Meanwhile, she’s taking full advantage of her own opportunities and is now working on her master’s degree, hoping to apply her skills towards building the union. “I love the union … it’s that brotherhood, sisterhood, and there’s nothing like knowing someone has your back.”

You can read about the experiences of other workers, like Tanya’s colleague Willie Walker, at our page on worker stories.

Associated Press Posts