Mercedes Benz faces Federal labor complaints

Apr 8, 2014

The National Labor Relations Board in Birmingham is hearing evidence against Mercedes Benz. Supporters of the United Auto Workers Union claim the German car maker is violating the rights of pro-union workers at its plant near Tuscaloosa. Alabama Public Radio’s Pat Duggins reports on day one of the hearing…

“Yes, I’ve been there and I was hand billing, and security surrounds you and they ask for your ID.”

We met George Jones in February. He’s a 14 year veteran of the Mercedes Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, and a supporter of unionization. Jones recalled a problem he had with Mercedes security guards while handing out union pamphlets. It’s a process called hand billing.

“Why would you ask for my ID?” asked Jones. “You don’t ask for everyone’s ID when they go through the turnstiles. But, you surround me, and that stops my fellow workers, because there’s security standing around and I’m not taking anything from them with security standing there.”

Similar complaints made their way to the National Labor Relations Board office in Birmingham. It’s there where Mercedes got the chance to fire back.

“MBUSI is committed to being neutral on the union topic. In fact, we even worked with team members to adjust policies at the plant to ensure that we stick to neutrality.”

That’s Matt Everitt, General Counsel at Mercedes Benz. He’s reading from a prepared statement that follows up an early statement where the car maker stated that it had done nothing wrong and that it was neutral on the subject of unionization. That statement followed a day’s worth of sometimes contentious testimony.

The NLRB acts much like a Federal court room. Reporters aren’t allowed to record the proceedings. One big difference is that there’s no jury. An administrative law judge hears the arguments and issues an opinion. UAW’s opening witness was quality control inspector Kirk Garner. He’s a 14 year veteran of the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa. He told the court how his own team leader and a HR person told him not to hand out union leaflets in a public area called the “atrium” or staff only areas called “team centers.” On cross examination, Mercedes attorney Marcel DeBruge asked Garner if the “no” policy had changed. Garner responded “yes,” and the HR person had come back later to say that management had decided that it was okay for union materials to be handed out in the atrium and the lunchroom where most Mercedes workers gathered. DeBruge asked if Garner or anyone he knew was disciplined for handing out union leaflets.

Garner said “no.”

DeBruge asked if Garner or anyone he knew was disciplined for handing out union materials.

Garner said “no.”

DeBruge asked if anyone had been demoted or transferred.

Garner said “no.”

The one point where Mercedes and the UAW seemed to disagree was over hand billing in the “team centers” next to the assembly line just before shift change. The union wants to hand out pamphlets there. But, Mercedes contends that important business takes place prior to the start of each shift, like talking about safety issues or technical concerns. DeBruge told the judge that Mercedes had gone out of its way to allow hand billing everywhere else, and had permitted pro-union activity at least thirty times at the plant since last summer.

Perhaps a more explosive witness came later. Repair shop worker Jeremy Kimbrell testified he had an argument with his team leader over a pro-union speech he gave on the assembly line. He also allegedly said, in front of witnesses, that a Vice President of HR at Mercedes of lying in a letter about the unions sent to plant workers. DeBruge went point by point in the letter to refute Kimbrell’s assertions. Kimbrell also admitted under cross that his supervisor didn’t stop him from talking about the unions. Over a dozen witnesses are expected to be called this week before the NLRB. The judge’s opinion could end the matter or refer the case to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington. That decision is expected a month after closing arguments.