The annual National Football League draft, held every April in New York, is the most high-profile event of the NFL off-season, with full coverage on national TV.
This year, the United Auto Workers and its allies used the draft to turn up a corporate campaign and organizing drive directed at the new owner of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan, who also owns U.S. auto supplier Flex-N-Gate.
Khan, the Pakistan-born self-made billionaire who bought the Jaguars for more than $700 million in January, traditionally has been a private figure in the auto industry, but his profile this year became more public as the owner of an NFL franchise. His emerging visibility in the NFL has given the UAW a public platform as it campaigns to organize workers at Flex-N-Gate's nonunion plants.
The company, incorporated in 1956, ranks No. 56 on sister publication Automotive News'list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide parts sales to automakers of $3.4 billion in 2011. It employs about 12,450 people at 59 operations worldwide, according to its website.
The UAW staged the protest before the NFL draft to highlight one of its several complaints against Flex-N-Gate. The union and environmentalists also allege that carcinogenic chemicals were spilled at an idled Detroit-area plant owned by Flex-N-Gate.
The plant, in Highland Park, Michigan, and called Chrome Craft, was shuttered in 2009 and contaminated the surrounding neighborhood, which includes some urban farms, local and union leaders allege. They claim the company is responsible for leaking hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that the firm used to coat bumpers at the plant.
During the protest, a small group of activists marched to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's Park Avenue office in New York and presented his office with a letter outlining complaints against Khan and Flex-N-Gate for the situation at Chrome Craft.
Meanwhile, the UAW is trying to organize workers at 13 Flex-N-Gate plants in seven states. Hourly workers at the nonunion plants established a national organizing committee in December.
About 40 percent of Flex-N-Gate's U.S. workers have union representation, the UAW says. Of the nine unionized plants, the UAW represents workers at five plants, the United Steelworkers union represents one,and the IUE-CWA represents three.
The only unionized Flex-N-Gate plants were acquisitions, the UAW said. None of the plants that Flex-N-Gate incorporated has a unionized work force, the union said.
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said in an interview that the nonunion employees are paid what she called unlivable hourly wages between $9 and $10, adding that the safety conditions at some of the Flex-N-Gate facilities are among the worst she has seen during her 17-year career.
"I've never, ever come across an employer that is this reckless in terms of the health and safety piece," she said. Estrada was elected as a vice president in 2010, and she has been mentioned as a possible successor to UAW President Bob King.
Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Guardian West, a subsidiary of Flex-N-Gate in Urbana, Ill., with nine health and safety violations for failing to properly observe employees' exposure to nickel, chromium, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid. OSHA also said that Guardian West failed to provide proper medical care to the workers.
Workers at the plant manufacture and assemble decorative bumper plating.
OSHA proposed $57,000 in fines, but Flex-N-Gate is contesting the charges before an independent review board. OSHA spokesman Scott Allen said the review process could take six months to a year to complete.
Allen said that OSHA recently opened another investigation into alleged violations at the Urbana facility, but declined to provide details because the investigation is ongoing.
Despite multiple requests, Flex-N-Gate declined to comment. Efforts to reach Khan through the Jaguars also were unsuccessful.
Many workers at Guardian West are immigrants and are worried about retribution if they tried to organize, Estrada said. The OSHA ruling slightly eased their fears because "Flex-N-Gate had gotten away with this for so long," she said.
"They didn't know that there was a process that could begin to fix their workplace," Estrada said.
Workers at unionized Flex-N-Gate plants have been in touch with their counterparts at the plants working toward organizing to give advice and support, Estrada said.
Kathy Morgan, a member of UAW Local 2270 who works at Flex-N-Gate's plant in Evart, Michigan, said it was critically important for unionized workers to help others organize.
"I don't feel that any human being should be treated the way they treat some of their nonunion workers," Morgan said. "They know it's wrong because they don't treat the union workers like that."
The NFL is publicly supporting the new owner of the Jacksonville franchise.
In response to the April protest, Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy, wrote a letter to the Rev. D. Alexander Bullock, a Detroit-area pastor helping to lead the protest over the Highland Park plant. The letter said the league had no influence over Khan's outside business ventures, but that Flex-N-Gate said it would work with the appropriate authorities to "assure neighbors and all stakeholders that there is no reason for concern."
The NFL and Jacksonville Jaguars did not respond to requests for comment, but Estrada called the league's response "outrageous."
"They wouldn't allow this from members of their teams," Estrada said. "And they shouldn't allow it from their owners."