UAW Wears Out Welcome at Alabama Mercedes Plant

Mercedes TuscaloosaWhen it comes to organizing German-owned facilities in the U.S., the United Auto Workers can’t be accused of shyness – or it would seem, transparency. For the past several months, the union, led since early June by its new president, Dennis Williams, has been stepping up its campaign to represent Mercedes-Benz workers in central Alabama. The UAW, still smarting from its election defeat this February at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is aware that victory is unlikely. To overcome disadvantage, organizers apparently have been resorting to misinformation. They’ve been telling workers that federal law bars them from discussing pay and working conditions unless they belong to a union. Such a claim is false. And even in its absence, a number of pro-union employees are growing tired of the campaign.

For the United Auto Workers, it’s about the numbers. The Detroit-based union, which had about 1.5 million active members at the dawn of the Eighties, during the past several years has been averaging around only 380,000 to 400,000. Union leadership is pulling out the stops to get new members. And it sees them in Right to Work Southern states, where foreign-based automakers since the Eighties have been establishing a strong presence. Twice, in 1989 and 2001, the UAW conducted organizing drives at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., but lost decisively. Much more recently, the union saw an opening at the Chattanooga VW plant, which had been manufacturing Passat sedans since mid-2011, and a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. Chattanooga organizers used misleading tactics to induce employees to sign union membership pledge cards. Given the corporation’s support for the union, the card check might have resulted in representation were it not for a group of dissenting workers who filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, more focused on establishing a European-style works council at the plant than whether or not the plant went union, reluctantly agreed this January to an NLRB-supervised election. The company also signed a neutrality agreement with the union that committed itself to refraining from any public criticism of the UAW campaign. The election happened soon enough. And on February 14, the announcement came: Workers rejected the UAW collective bargaining bid by the relatively narrow margin of 712 to 626. The union a week later appealed the result to the NLRB, but withdrew the challenge in April.

The United Auto Workers, meanwhile, was facing an election of its own. President Bob King, having passed the union’s mandatory age limit of 65 to serve a new term, was stepping down. His heir apparent, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, a veteran organizer who’d led a pair of strikes against Caterpillar during the Nineties, easily won election at the union convention at Detroit’s Cobo Center early this June. UAW Southeast Regional Director Gary Casteel, the lead man in the VW campaign, was elected secretary-treasurer, a sure sign the union had its eyes on unionizing foreign-owned plants in the South. The union would have a fresh supply of funds for this gambit; delegates approved a King proposal for a 25 percent dues hike. In his inaugural speech, President Williams emphasized the importance of expanding membership and eliminating the two-tier wage system set up as part of the 2007 cost-control agreement with Big Three U.S. automakers. The UAW reluctantly accepted that agreement under which new hires make a good deal less than veteran workers.

The Mercedes-Benz plant, located near the small town of Vance, Alabama on 1,000 acres of State-donated land along the Interstate 20/59 corridor connecting Birmingham to the east and Tuscaloosa to the west, would seem excellent union organizing fodder. Announced to great fanfare in 1993, the facility, which goes under the name Mercedez-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) and currently employs about 3,500 workers, has been producing motor vehicles since 1997. And it’s due for increased activity. The German parent company, Daimler AG, had announced in 2009 that it planned to shift production of its newest generation of C-Class automobiles to the Alabama plant for the U.S. market within several years. On top of this new C-Class model (W205) is an as-yet unnamed new line set for a rollout next year. With the Alabama plant continuing to produce M-Class and R-Class cars, and GL-Class SUVs, a hiring boom is almost inevitable. The United Auto Workers leadership understandably sees a membership boom.

The union, however, isn’t ready for an election. Put simply, if one were held today, the UAW wouldn’t win. Union leaders admit as much. Secretary-Treasurer Casteel, himself an Alabama native, acknowledges as much: “Why would we go down that road again? I don’t think the political atmosphere in Alabama is any different than it is in Tennessee.” The UAW, which has been focused on organizing the Alabama plant for the last two years, has adapted to circumstance by getting creative – perhaps too creative.

First, the United Auto Workers, its German auto and metal workers counterpart IG Metall, and the Daimler World Employee Committee last month jointly announced the formation of a new labor organization, UAW Local 112. The intent is to build membership gradually, thus positioning the union for eventual representation. This coalition requested formal recognition of the affiliate by Daimler AG. Present at the October 3 news conference in Tuscaloosa were: UAW President Dennis Williams; IG Metall Vice President Joerge Hofmann; Michael Brecht, the lead labor official on the Daimler AG board of directors; and a couple dozen of pro-union Vance employees. The Alabama plant is the only Daimler facility in the world whose work force is not represented by a union, a point that union leaders regularly hammer home. “Mercedes-Benz is one of the most storied brands in the history of the global automotive industry, and that’s in large part because of the company’s workers,” said the UAW’s Williams. “It’s time for the committed and hard-working employees at MBUSI to have the same representation that Daimler employees enjoy around the world. It’s the right thing to do.” IG Metall’s Hofmann added: “We believe now is the time to fulfill the promise of co-determination in Alabama and we believe that the UAW is the right partner to assist the workers.” In response to the announcement, Daimler Chairman and CEO Dieter Zetsche issued a statement from Stuttgart headquarters saying that workers themselves have to decide whether to unionize.

Second, UAW organizers for many months, even before Williams became president, have been conducting a card check campaign among Mercedes workers. Under the National Labor Relations Act, if a card check generates signatures from more than 50 percent of potentially affected workers, the employer or the union have the option of recognizing the union. And if the process reaches a 30 percent threshold, the employer or union can request an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election. But according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the union has been misinforming Mercedes employees. Organizers allegedly are telling them that they have to become union members in order to discuss wages, benefits and working conditions with their employer. In point of fact, federal labor law says no such thing. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not explicitly bar informal face-to-face labor-management discussions even in cases when a union contract is in force. So long as discussions don’t involve making a formal deal, or altering the terms of an existing one, employees are within their rights in bringing up grievances or suggestions with an employer. While labor representatives who sit on VW, Daimler and other German joint employer-employee works councils typically are union members, not all are. And even if German labor law required as much, labor law there does not apply in America.

The United Auto Workers’ view, like that of other domestic unions, is that informal labor discussion groups outside the framework of collective bargaining constitute “company unions” and thus are illegal under the NLRA. In practice, however, the topics that come up for discussion at works councils are similar to those discussed between management and labor generally. In other words, the union appears to fear discussions becoming productive and hence indicative (in the minds of workers) of a lack of a need for a union. “Mercedes-Benz workers can discuss their work with their employer without UAW authorization,” said Mark Mix, president of the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. “UAW union officials are misleading workers into thinking that they have no choice but to unionize in order to have a voice in the workplace.”

Aside from the dubious arguments put forth by the United Auto Workers, a number of Mercedes employees in Alabama are, or have become, unenthusiastic over the prospect of union representation. Veteran team leader Sonny Hawthorne recently dismissed the formation of Local 112 as “just another back-door tactic that the UAW’s trying to use to gain entry to our plant.” He added: “It’s a way to get around having an election because they will never win an election at Mercedes.” Some workers in the local area already have registered their formal disapproval. In August 2013, employees of Faurecia in Tuscaloosa voted against UAW representation by 86-62. Faurecia is a French supplier of auto seating parts for plants around the world, including the Alabama Mercedes facility. While the union did win an election at a Faurecia plant in nearby Cottondale, Ala., it thus far has been unable to deliver on its promises.

It’s true that a number of Mercedes workers do favor unionization. And they were out in force at the October 3 conference. One of them, Rodney Bowens, a longtime paint and body inspector, stated: “It’s been a long time coming. UAW Local 112 will offer workers the opportunity for a voice in our workplace.” Yet support appears to be waning even among this faction. The core group has asked the UAW to stop its campaign. One of its members, Kirk Garner, a 13-year employee, put it this way in May: “This has gone on for two-and-a-half years, and people are burnt out. It’s over.” That was a half-year ago. One only can imagine more weariness today. With many union membership pledge cards now expired, Garner and other union supporters have begun to talk with the Machinists union, despite the AFL-CIO having given the UAW exclusive jurisdiction over organizing.

All this suggests the United Auto Workers isn’t that popular at the Mercedes plant in Alabama and probably won’t be anytime in the near future. The plant has been in operation for close to two decades, and with high worker satisfaction. And employees there may have grasped that UAW institutional viability matters less than job security. The reality is that UAW demands over the years, especially in the area of benefits, helped push domestic automakers into near-insolvency, and in the cases of General Motors and Chrysler, bankruptcy. A lot of Mercedes workers don’t want to risk going there.


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