URBANA — About 50 people turned out for a rally near Flex-N-Gate's Guardian West plant in Urbana on Wednesday, calling for the company to pay better wages.
The rally was one of seven simultaneous gatherings the United Auto Workers held at Flex-N-Gate plants in five states.
Other rallies were held at unionized plants in Warren, Mich, and Belvidere, Ill., and at nonunion plants in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Veedersburg, Ind.; Salem, Ohio; and Arlington, Texas.
In Urbana, where the work force is not unionized, demonstrators held placards with slogans such as "I can't afford to drive to my job," "Treat us with respect" and "I can't live on these wages."
In a release, the UAW called on Flex-N-Gate to improve safety, pay "livable" wages and not intimidate workers who want to form a union.
Responding to those charges, Jim Woodcock, a spokesman with Flex-N-Gate's public relations agency, Fleishman-Hillard, said, "Flex-N-Gate associates receive competitive wages, enjoy quality growth opportunities and benefit from our ongoing commitment to safe working conditions."
He said "the vast majority" of Flex-N-Gate workers "are happy with their employment."
Flex-N-Gate, headquartered in Urbana, makes metal bumpers, interior and exterior plastic parts, lighting and stamped metal components for General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan and other auto makers.
"Flex-N-Gate has grown from a small company with a single plant to an important global supplier," said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who oversees the union's auto-part supplier division. "They can afford to do better."
The company has been cited several times by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with violations at the Guardian West plant.
The violations pertain to the use of hexavalent chromium, the presence of combustible metal dust and the handling of a July 2012 chemical accident.
O'Neal Clemmons, who has worked at the company's non-union Masterguard plant in Veedersburg, Ind., said Flex-N-Gate has worked with union members at other plants to fix safety problems.
"We know from talking with workers at unionized Flex-N-Gate plants that it doesn't have to be like this," he said.
At the five nonunion plants, workers have been trying for more than a year to organize with the UAW.
According to the union, workers in Michigan, Texas and Indiana have claimed the company threatened, harassed and fired workers who supported forming a union, and the National Labor Relations Board has issued complaints against Flex-N-Gate with regard to that.
At the union facilities in Warren and Belvidere, the UAW said, its members are in the final stages of negotiating a new contract with the company. Over the weekend, workers at those plants voted to strike, if necessary, to get a fair contract.
"We have raised concerns about issues at both unionized and nonunion plants during these negotiations," said Billy Williams, a member of the UAW's bargaining committee in Warren.
"Wages and working conditions at Flex-N-Gate's non-union plants directly affect our ability to bargain a fair contract," he said.
"When the company is allowed to pay poverty wages and cut corners on important issues like safety at its non-union plants, it's that much harder for us to continue to move forward in our contract negotiations," Williams added.