Best Spot News Story--Alabama Public Radio "UAW versus Mercedes Benz"

Mar 30, 2015

UAW versus Mercedes Benz

Alabama Public Radio

It took a year’s worth of research and production for Alabama Public Radio to fully cover this legal case that went before the National Labor Relations Board in Birmingham. The United Auto Workers initially hinted at unfair labor practices at Mercedes Benz’ North American production plant in Tuscaloosa in August of 2013. That’s when the union lost a vote for UAW representation at the Faurecia auto parts factory which supplies seats and other components for the Mercedes factory. There were allegations of management interference, but nothing concrete. Our first report on this matter didn’t air until the UAW took their grievances to the NLRB in 2014

The UAW went forward with a formal complaint to the National Labor Relations Board in February of 2014. The union claimed Mercedes was unfairly preventing supporters from distributing pro-union leaflets at the plant, which the company denied. The NLRB agreed two of the charges had merit and set a date for a formal hearing. The event allowed Alabama Public Radio to produce long-form radio stories outlining the union’s grievances, and to follow the NLRB case while explaining the legal process to its listenership.

On July 31, 2014, almost a full year since beginning this story, administrative law judge Keltner Locke ruled that Mercedes had violated the National Labor Relations Act. The car company changed its policies, its employee handbook, and posted the nature of its violations publicly for its workforce to see

UAW Versus Mercedes Benz

February 5, 2014

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.

NLRB Hearing

April 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

NLRB Verdict

July 31, 2014

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a preliminary ruling involving the Mercedes Benz plant near Tuscaloosa. Alabama Public Radio’s Pat Duggins reports the car company was found in violation…

Administrative law judge Keltner Locke ruled Mercedes Benz violated part of the National Labor Relations Act. The United Auto Workers union took Mercedes to court after the company allegedly stopped union supporters from handing out leaflets. Judge Locke’s ruling says Mercedes was in violation when it prevented the practice, known as hand billing, in areas like the atrium or team centers. Those are spots where Mercedes workers gather before starting of their shifts and can talk about non-work subjects. Judge Locke sided with the car company on one allegation. A Mercedes worker alleged that a plant manager kept him from talking about the union with other staff members. Judge Locke’s ruling orders Mercedes to change its employee handbook within fourteen days and to post those changes for workers to see. The judge’s ruling can be appealed to the full National Labor Relations Board. Pat Duggins APR news in Tuscaloosa