Questions of unionization swirl at Mercedes plant in Alabama
Daimler's head labour official called it "unacceptable" that plant lacks union representation for workers
TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—The head labour official on Daimler AG’s supervisory board says he considers it “unacceptable” that the German automaker’s Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama stands alone among the company’s factories around the world without union representation for its workers.
Michael Brecht, who took over as head of Daimler’s works councils and as deputy chairman of the board in April, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that he supports the United Auto Workers (UAW) union’s efforts to gain recognition at the plant located near Tuscaloosa in western Alabama.
“It’s should be normal that we have a union at each of our plants,” Brecht said in German. “We have very different behaviour on the part of the company in some cases. In India we are in the process of founding a union for our plant there, and we have the support of the company that will happen.
“But in the (U.S.), in the South, it is being resisted. It is unacceptable to me how the company is acting here.”
Brecht’s comments follow recent pronouncements by labour counterparts at fellow German automaker Volkswagen AG in support of the UAW organizing its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Under German law, labour representatives hold half the seats on corporations’ supervisory boards.
The UAW lost a union election at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee by a 712 to 626 vote in February following a contentious campaign waged by supporters and opponents of organized labour.
UAW secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel has since announced the formation of a new local in Chattanooga, and said he expects Volkswagen to recognize the union without another vote once it signs up enough workers.
Casteel this spring was also named Brecht’s deputy on Daimler’s World Employee Committee.
Brecht said that move was meant in part to “show solidarity with UAW, and our commitment to the common goal of gaining a foothold in Tuscaloosa.”
Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told reporters during a recent plant visit in Alabama that the company already has relationships with the UAW at its truck making subsidiaries.
He said the company pledges neutrality on union issues at the plant and that he sees “no surprises or major tensions” over the issue with labour representatives on the board.
“That’s for our employees to make their call and to take their vote,” Zetsche said. “And in this regard, the team here in Tuscaloosa has decided for the last 20 years not to organize with the UAW or any other union.”
Brecht said he plans to visit the Tuscaloosa plant in the coming weeks to determine whether the company is keeping its neutrality pledge.
Workers at the plant have claimed company officials have prevented them from distributing union materials and discussing organization there.
Southern Republicans have resisted the UAW gaining a foothold with its first foreign automaker in the South for fear that it would frighten off future investors.
“A company like Mercedes, if they were to unionize, would it hurt my ability to recruit companies to Alabama? Absolutely it would,” Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said after a recent event at the Mercedes plant.
“Certain companies and areas of the world like Asian companies, they are not as amenable to coming to a state where unionization is strong.”
In Tennessee, Republican Sen. Bob Corker has been among the most vocal critics of the UAW’s efforts to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, where he was once mayor.
Corker, at a Chamber of Commerce speech in Lawrenceburg last month, marveled at the power of labour representatives at the highest rungs of German companies like Volkswagen.
“I know there was a lot of misunderstanding in our state about where Volkswagen really was on this issue,” Corker said. “Volkswagen is a huge company, very political. It operates unlike any company I’ve ever been involved with.
“It’s not like most companies that have a CEO that can make crisp and clear decisions.”