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Labor coalition steps up battle with electric vehicle company

Labor coalition steps up battle with electric vehicle company
Madeline Janis, director of the Jobs to Move America coalition, speaks outside the BYD headquarters in Los Angeles on Tuesday. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

A coalition of labor and community groups stepped up its battle with a Chinese-owned company that manufactures electric vehicles in Los Angeles County on Tuesday, accusing the firm of breaking promises and failing to provide safe "living wage" jobs with the tens of millions of dollars the firm has received from government contracts and other public investment.

Los Angeles city officials are already seeking documents from Build Your Dreams -- better known as BYD -- in reaction to allegations that the company violated L.A.'s "living wage" rules mandating minimum pay for city contractors under an agreement signed five years ago.

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At a Tuesday news conference, the pro-labor coalition Jobs to Move America also claimed that the firm scaled back its plans to hire locally after it snagged a contract to build electric buses for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"This is one more outrage to the series of outrages that have been committed by this huge, multibillion-dollar company," Jobs to Move America director Madeline Janis said, urging public agencies that awarded contracts to hold the firm accountable.

BYD has denied the allegations, saying that it has kept its contractual promises and provides good jobs with competitive pay. Company officials argue the firm has come under attack because it disagreed with labor activists over the process for possibly unionizing its workers.

The company got the highest marks for its local hiring plan when it bid against other companies for the Metro contract. But at the news conference, Janis pointed to an update to the bid documents in which BYD said it was planning to "produce all of the buses" in China.

Metro officials countered that the Jobs to Move America claims of BYD backtracking on its promises were erroneous. The agency said it had always anticipated that the buses would be at least partly manufactured in China.

"The plan all along was for them … to build the car shells in China and to do final assembly in the United States," Metro interim executive officer of vendor/contract management Victor Ramirez said.

Ramirez said the same document indicated each bus would probably require at least 100 hours of inspection and other local work before being delivered. The update that Janis had pointed to was only a "clarification" that was factored into the bid scoring before BYD was awarded the contract, agency officials said.

The Jobs to Move America "assertion is patently false," BYD corporate counsel John Zhuang said, contending that Metro and BYD both understood that "the Metro contract would have buses produced in China" and that the company had "far exceeded what we promised."

"Many parts of our [Metro] buses are built right here in Lancaster, and we've hired 58 new employees," Zhuang said in an email.

Janis said that the number of hours the document stated that local workers would spend on the buses was meager in light of their total cost.

The company earlier denied allegations that it had violated a Los Angeles law that mandates minimum pay for city contractors. The firm said it has paid workers at its L.A. facility at or above that wage level, even though it argues it was exempt from those rules under the agreement to refurbish a Figueroa Street building as a new headquarters.

L.A. city contracting officials say those rules did apply to the $1.6-million agreement and that the company is out of line with city rules because it failed to turn over payroll documents. BYD, in turn, says it already turned over records to the city three years ago.

Labor activists also alleged at the news conference that workers have faced safety issues at the Lancaster plant.

Workers "deserve to be treated well, especially by a company that's received millions of our tax dollars," said Los Angeles County Federation of Labor press secretary Gabriella Landeros.

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Eight workers at the Lancaster plant, who declined to be quoted by name because they feared they would lose their jobs, earlier told The Times they had complaints about working conditions. For instance, the employees alleged that work such as sanding down fiberglass was done in areas exposed to other laborers without adequate protection.

BYD denied many of the allegations about safety lapses and says it has never had a significant workplace injury that led to lost time on the job.

In an interview last week, company vice president of sales Macy Neshati said that sanding down fiberglass would only occur in specially licensed booths unless workers were making slight adjustments. He said that another safety issue raised by workers – drivers spending excessive hours on the road – had occurred in a few cases but was "not something we condone, endorse or ask for."

Workers also complained that the company had recently instituted a process called "safety bingo" that allowed workers to win a growing pot of money if no accidents were reported, a pot that dropped down to a smaller sum if someone reported an accident.

Such a practice "creates a situation where employees harass workers not to turn in issues," said James W. White Jr., director of organizing for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union.

Neshati said the process was common at many corporations. "The incentive is not to not report injuries, the incentive is to work safely and to make sure that people around you are working safely," he said.

Labor activists recently clashed with BYD over the process for possibly unionizing its employees.  Company officials balked at a proposed "card check" agreement that would require it to recognize a union if the majority of its workers sign cards asking to form one.

Union leaders often prefer that system to holding an election, a longer process they say can be used to intimidate workers. BYD President Stella Li said the company affirms the right for workers to unionize, but "we believe it should be done the right way" using formal elections.

Follow @latimesemily for what's happening at Los Angeles City Hall

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