UAW Supporters versus Mercedes Benz

Feb 5, 2014

What do you think? Should workers at Mercedes Benz join the United Auto Workers union or not?

Mercedes Benz and supporters of the United Auto Workers union will square off soon before the National Labor Relations Board. The auto maker’s plant near Tuscaloosa is accused of violating Federal labor laws. At the heart of the matter is U-A-W’s long term goal of unionizing the plant. Supporters of organized labor met at the Union’s office in the town of Coaling, not far from the sprawling Mercedes manufacturing plant. Union faithful from all over the state gathered to hear the accusations against the German car company, including Butch Mitchell of Gadsden.

“I’m a union official at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company with the steel workers,” he says. “Don’t know why they kept me there so long, must be doing something right.”

Mitchell and other union leaders crowded the U-A-W office on Highway 11, in a strip mall next to the Dollar General. Even if you didn’t ask who he was, Mitchell’s red sweatshirt was a dead giveaway. It has the logo of the Steelworkers union stitched on the left pocket. Today, he was in Coaling to hear from Mercedes workers like Don White. He and twelve of his co-workers stood at a podium to talk about their grievances against the car company.

“We’ve had instances with security when folks were hand billing outside the gates,” he says. “(Security officials) coming up and asking for your identification.”

Hand billing is union slang for handing out pamphlets. George Jones works quality control at the Mercedes plant. He says he’s had run-ins as well

“Yes, I’ve been there and I’ve been hand billing, and security surrounds you, and they ask for your I.D. “ he says.

In a statement released to the press, Mercedes says that's not how it happened, and the company firmly denies violating any federal labor laws. However, the allegations attracted the attention of the National Labor Relations Board. The panel rejected one accusation against the automaker, but ruled that two other charges may have merit. That may sound like a victory for the unions, but Butch Mitchell isn’t too sure. We met him at the beginning of this story. He says the fight is only getting underway.

“After they (management) find out what’s happened here today, they’ll come after them,” says Mitchell. “And, they will pick out one team member and try to get him to defect. And, that’s the worst thing that can happen to your committee.”

Another face in the crowd today is State Senator Bobby Singleton. The Democrat from Greensboro is pushing a key issue with union supporters. They claim that Mercedes relies too heavily on temporary workers who are paid only half as much as full-time workers. Singleton says his bill would fix that.

“So, my bill would say that companies that are receiving incentives from the State of Alabama, they could have no more than one percent of workers be temp workers,” he says.

There are supporters and opponents of unionization in Alabama. Senator Singleton concedes one point by the critics. Namely, that cheap labor probably brought Mercedes to Alabama, along with factories for European airplane maker Airbus, and the German steel maker ThyssenKrupp. Still, Singleton says cheap labor isn’t good for Alabama.

“Temps have a right to work,” says the Senator. “But, I think we should look at whether we’re building a good economy in the state of Alabama by hiring just temporary workers.”

The United Autoworkers Union has been working to gain a toehold in Alabama and in other states Tennessee that also build cars for foreign companies. One issue is that Alabama is a right to work state, which means unions can organize here but they don’t have much power. Also, rank and file workers don’t appear to have welcomed the unions with opened arms. APR listeners learned that last year when the U-A-W staged a unionization vote at one of Mercedes parts suppliers.

“This process started over a year ago,” says U-A-W officer Charles Lewis in August of 2013. “Workers at Faurecia felt they didn’t have a voice, that they were treated unfairly, and we not respected. So they called me about June of last year and we got the ball rolling."

Faurecia is a French owned company that builds auto parts. Its Tuscaloosa plant makes seats for Mercedes Benz cars. When this story first aired, APR asked Faurecia to comment on Lewis’ claims. The company didn’t respond. But, in hindsight, it didn’t need to. The rank and file voted against unionizing. Four months after the no vote at Faurecia, Lewis sat at the back of the U-A-W office to hear the allegations against Mercedes Benz. No unionization vote is planned at Mercedes. For now, all sides are preparing to present arguments at the National Labor Relations Board. The hearing is set for this April in Birmingham.