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Union representing workers at Pembina Motor Coach Industries plant claims company broke promises

Jennifer Winkler, an electrician of eight years at the Pembina plant, said the Thursday, May 19, announcement from NFI came as a surprise to employees who had previously been told the plant was profitable and would remain open, even during a round of layoffs in spring 2021.

Motor Coach Industries in Pembina, N.D.
Motor Coach Industries in Pembina, N.D.
Grand Forks Herald File Photo
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PEMBINA, N.D. – Workers at the Motor Coach Industries bus manufacturing plant in Pembina, North Dakota, feel that Manitoba, Canada-based NFI Group, Inc., MCI’s parent company, has broken promises to employees after the company announced it will be closing the plant by the end of the year .

Jennifer Winkler, an electrician of eight years at the Pembina plant, said the Thursday, May 19, announcement from NFI came as a surprise to employees who had previously been told the plant was profitable and would remain open, even during a round of layoffs in spring 2021 .

“We were just in shock thinking back to all the things we’ve been told, the broken promises — how we’d never close because we were paid for and have so much to offer this community — things like that,” said Winkler, who serves as president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union lodge at the MCI plant.

The plant has approximately 200 employees; approximately 175 are members of IAM.

The closure is a part of a series of ongoing cost saving measures, called NFI Forward, and the plant is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2022. The NFI Forward initiative was started in 2020, and was originally expected to generate more than $75 million in cost savings by the end of 2022. That target has been adjusted to $67 million.

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According to Brian Dewsnup, acting president and CEO of NFI, in a release announcing the changes, the move to close the Pembina plant will lower costs and streamline operations.

“The closure of our Pembina facility follows a detailed review of our manufacturing footprint, combined with the planned cessation of a legacy motorcoach vehicle product, and prior investments in expanded production and workforce development at our Minnesota facilities,” Dewsnup said. “It is never easy to close locations and impact the lives and careers of our people, and we will do our best to redeploy or assist them in finding alternative employment where possible.”

In April 2021, MCI announced plans to modify a New Flyer completion line at the facility in Crookston, Minnesota, so the company could build buses and coaches at the Crookston location, resulting in the layoffs of 50 employees in Pembina.

At the time, workers worried the number of layoffs would be closer to 100, and that it was the start of all MCI jobs being moved to Crookston and Winnipeg in the coming years. MCI disputed these claims. In an email to the Herald in April 2021, Lindy Norris, NFI spokesperson, said the company planned to keep the Pembina plant open, while moving some of its work to New Flyer in Crookston.

Now a year later, union representatives say employees were lied to when they were told the Pembina facility would remain open.

“Almost 12 months later, here we are doing this again, when we actually called them out on this a year ago,” said Shannon Stucker, Grand Lodge Representative for IAM’s Midwest territory. “For us, it’s still broken promises and a lack of integrity from New Flyer for closing this facility in such short notice, and not only that, they lied to the communities, they lied to our people, they lied to the state of North Dakota."

According to Norris, promises about the future of the Pembina plant were never made, and union representatives were notified of a further review of NFI’s North American facilities in March 2022, which included a review of the company’s ability to keep the Pembina facility open.

“At no point did NFI guarantee the future state of any of its facilities, as significant NFI Forward analysis was ongoing and not complete,” Norris said.

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The company started the Product Distribution Center expansion, a $400 million project, with a groundbreaking in fall 2017.

Norris says staffing the facility in the town of 512 has been an ongoing challenge — even before the pandemic — due to the size of the community, decreasing population, availability of specialized skill sets and ability to recruit.

“Unfortunately, labor availability worsened over the past 12 months, with America now facing a historic labor shortage,” she said.

Winkler says union representatives offered to help NFI attract workers by accompanying the company to job fairs and telling potential employees about additional benefits that come with union membership at the plant, like free college, veterans benefits and substance abuse programs.

“We even offered to go with them and give them pamphlets, but they didn’t seem to want the help,” said Winkler.

Jeremy Pearson, directing business representative for IAM, said IAM has had success with this kind of effort in the past. When the Electrolux freezer manufacturing plant in St. Cloud, Minnesota, closed in 2019, union representatives met with workers and helped some apply to work in Pembina. He says some of the employees the union helped recruit still work at the plant in Pembina today.

“We saw an opportunity, we had people that needed jobs, we passed it along and we actually brought people up here that needed jobs,” said Pearson.

The plant closing in Pembina will not just affect employees and their families, said Pearson, but the rest of the town and surrounding communities. For other businesses in town, like restaurants, hardware stores and general stores, people moving away is bad news.

“The more people you lose in those communities, the harder it is for those small businesses to stay open,” said Pearson.

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On June 6, IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr. sent a letter to the North Dakota congressional delegation, calling on them to ask MCI to reconsider the decision to close the Pembina plant.

“As you know, Pembina is a very small town and the loss of these jobs will have a major economic impact on our area and its surrounding communities. At one point, this plant employed as many as 800 workers,” wrote Martinez. “Your assistance in helping MCI prevent massive layoffs of this facility would be greatly appreciated.”

Pearson says if pressure from local lawmakers is unsuccessful in keeping the plant open, IAM will enter into negotiations with NFI about severance packages for employees and incentives for employees to stay at the plant to see the closure through. The union will also support members as they search for employment opportunities elsewhere.

Employees are preparing for the plant to shut down at the end of the year, said Winkler, but are still hoping the decision to close the plant could be reversed.

“We still kind of hold on to this miracle that could happen that they’re still going to need us,” said Winkler. “We do take a lot of pride in our work.”

Related Topics: PEMBINABUSINESS
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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