Auto Union Official Fired for Warning Fellow Workers About COVID-19

Travis Watkins, chair of an Auto Workers (UAW) bargaining unit in Wyoming, Michigan was fired March 18. The charge was violating Shop Rule #2: “Assaulting, fighting, threatening, intimidating, coercing, or interfering with employees or supervision.”

Turns out the “interfering” was hindering management’s desire not to tell workers about coworkers sent home for possibly coming down with the coronavirus.

Watkins, a mechanic, works at a General Motors Components Holdings complex that makes parts for GM, Toyota, and John Deere. His employer is a contractor, Caravan Facilities Management, which does work outsourced by GM.

On the morning of March 16, as the coronavirus was spreading throughout Michigan, the joint safety meeting between management and UAW focused on what to do about the virus. Watkins insisted that if members were to be involved with clean-up, they needed proper sanitation training and personal protective equipment. At that point management was not handing out face masks or gloves.

Taken Out in Face Masks

Later Watkins received calls from members saying they’d seen workers in face masks being driven through the plant on a medical cart. He called security, identified himself, and asked for a report. He was told that two people had left and was given the name of one.

Watkins called and talked to her. She was walked out, she said, because she was suspected of having the coronavirus. She gave Watkins written consent to discuss her case with the local’s leadership. He then alerted them on a shared executive board text thread. (The executive board of UAW Local 167, which Watkins sits on, covers six units at five companies.)

Although Watkins encouraged an immediate response by the board, he says he was told “to stay in my lane and not worry about GMCH employees, even though Caravan and GMCH employees work side by side.”

He then posted in a private Facebook group of about 80 UAW members, alerting everyone to what had happened.

The entire post read: “It’s been confirmed to me that GMCH employees were walked out of the plant today with suspected COVID19 symptoms…I’ve reported this to Local Leadership and ‘crickets.’” [Meaning “no response”—ed.]

Fired

The following day Watkins was called into his supervisor’s office. Since this was the first time this had ever happened, he assumed he was going to be disciplined; he reached out to his buddy, Derrick Davis, to accompany him. Under labor law’s “Weingarten rules,” a member facing a disciplinary meeting has the right to a witness. Davis, a UAW alternate committeeperson on the first shift, was not allowed to remain.

In a meeting with the sanitation manager and the skilled trades manager, Watkins was put under immediate suspension, pending an investigation. He was not informed of the charges and had to turn in his badge and keys. Allowed to go to his locker and get his things, Watkins was escorted out of the building.

On March 18 Jay Graves, skilled trades manager, terminated Watkins because of his Facebook post. Representing Watkins was Derrick Davis and International Representative, UAW Region 1-D, Dan Kosheba. The company claimed the post was a major violation of shop floor rules and falsely stated that Watkins was an “at-will” employee.

Davis immediately filed a grievance and a request for information. Management refused the request, saying they did not want Watkins to have access to the information. When the first-step grievance was heard on March 30, Jay Graves ruled the termination justified.

With his case now at the third step, Watkins has filed charges against Caravan with both the National Labor Relations Board and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He notes that the company violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act by denying his right to a representative, discharging him when he was engaged in protected concerted activities, and refusing to provide information requested by the union.

Watkins remains fired and the facility is now shut down given the Michigan governor’s March 23 order to end all nonessential work. As of April 9, more than 20,000 Michiganders have tested positive for the coronavirus and 959 have died, including more than a dozen UAW members.

On March 20, GM began to shut down production at the facility by department, taking a full week to close.

A “Troublemaker”

How did management get hold of a private union Facebook page? Although the post was the sum total of its “evidence,” at the first-step hearing Jay Graves claimed there had been a “thorough investigation” and mentioned details that were not from the Facebook page but from the e-board text thread.

Apparently, someone on the executive board was in touch with management.

It turns out this firing was not just about management getting rid of a union rep who stood up for members’ safety. It was also about local union leaders getting rid of a thorn in their side.

Coming from a union background when he hired in at Caravan three years ago, Watkins found that out of the 30 employees in the bargaining unit, only one was a union member. He organized his fellow workers and now all are union members, with Watkins as their bargaining chair.

When corruption surfaced in the UAW International, Watkins brought it up at his local meeting. Members voted to pass a resolution being circulated by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a reform group within the union, calling for one-member-one-vote elections to clean out the dirt. Watkins was a founding member of UAWD.

“We have to address the corruption at the local level or people won’t have faith in the union,” Watkins said.

But out of a Local 167 membership of 1,300, only 40 to 50 come out to meetings. Watkins was distressed by e-board members who wanted meetings to consist of financial statements, approval, and adjournment. He encouraged meetings where people could discuss the problems they were facing in the plant. Clearly challenging the old guard, and with local elections coming up, he was thinking about running for president.

Did someone on the e-board see this moment as a chance to eliminate a challenger?

Meanwhile, everyone in the Caravan bargaining unit has signed a petition saying that Watkins was targeted because of his reform efforts and should be reinstated.

The other question is how management can get away with firing a union representative who raised a health and safety issue. Any member of the UAW has the right and obligation to raise a health and safety concern, and even to refuse to work under such life-threatening conditions. Certainly, as bargaining chair Watkins was engaged in protected union activity.

Travis Watkins, as an elected UAW representative, was doing his job. He needs to be supported while he fights his battle and he needs complete reinstatement. His Facebook page is here and his GoFundMe link is here.