Thousands are traveling to Selma this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. President Obama, national civil rights leaders, and Americans from across the country will gather here to remember the events of Selma’s past and reflect on how much progress has been made.
But those who live and work in Selma today still face widespread hardship and limited opportunity. More than one-third of Selma’s residents live in poverty, and the median household income is roughly half the level of Alabama as a whole.
Today, we are carrying on the struggle started by civil rights leaders 50 years ago by joining together to demand good jobs and a shot at the middle class at one of our city’s largest employers: a manufacturer for Hyundai.
Along with other workers, community members, and clergy leaders from Selma and across the country, I retraced the historic route from Selma to Montgomery to call for an end to the economic injustice that is still facing African-American workers in Alabama and throughout the South.
We traveled to Montgomery to take our call for good jobs directly to the corporate offices of Hyundai – a global automaker that has received millions in public subsidies to operate here in Alabama, and that is responsible for low-wage jobs that leave workers struggling to get by.
One of the largest employers in Selma is an auto parts factory that manufactures foam for car seats in Hyundai vehicles. I’ve worked at the plant for nearly 10 years, and while working hard in a manufacturing job like mine once provided a middle class living, today these jobs have more in common with those in fast-food.
After more than a decade at the plant, I’m paid just $12.25 an hour. That’s the top rate for everyone – no matter how long you’ve worked, or how well you do your job. There are no raises coming. On this low pay, we struggle to support ourselves and our families.
And for this low pay, we are forced to work in dangerous conditions. Making seat foam requires the use of a dangerous chemical called TDI, which can cause serious breathing problems. Even after the Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the company last year for multiple serious violations of federal health and safety laws, the plant refuses to make basic changes that would make our jobs safer, like providing adequate ventilation in the plant, providing proper hand protection, and making sure air quality alarms are functioning properly.
I now have chronic asthma and bronchitis that require me to use an inhaler and a nasal spray every day, which I pay for out of pocket. Hospital visits have required me to miss weeks of work, leaving me with even less in the bank.
Hyundai has a responsibility – and the power – to ensure that the jobs it supports in Selma and throughout Alabama pay decent wages and do not threaten the health and safety of workers. But because companies like Hyundai have refused to demand good jobs from suppliers – who now employ three out of four auto workers in the country – wages for auto and manufacturing workers across the country are now making it impossible to reach the middle class.
While our struggle begins with Hyundai, this fight is about winning a better life for all of us in Selma. Fifty years ago, brave civil rights activists proved that when people stand together, we can win real change. That story is still true today, and it’s why people in Selma remain committed to winning the dignity and respect that we all deserve.
Kim King is a production worker at an auto parts factory in Selma, Alabama, and leader with the Selma Workers Organizing Committee.
Editor’s note: When reached for comment, Lear Corporation, the Hyundai supplier, responded that workers are paid “competitive wages” and that OSHA “ultimately concluded that the air quality has been and remains safe.” The United Auto Workers union has been attempting to organize the plant since May 2014 but remains unsuccessful.