UAW following VW road map to organize at Mercedes U.S. plant

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STUTTGART/DETROIT (Reuters) -- The UAW union in the United States is following the same road map at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama that it used to reach its historic vote to represent Volkswagen employees in Tennessee.

The UAW has been working with German union IG Metall and the Daimler works council, the labor group at Mercedes parent Daimler, to build support for the UAW among Mercedes workers in Vance, Alabama, according to the union and Alabama workers opposed to the UAW.

Since 2011, the UAW's efforts have included IG Metall officials making house calls on Alabama employees and the collection of signed cards backing the American union. Mercedes workers in favor of the UAW also have handed out fliers in the plant, and last month the union quoted an employee saying the union has never had greater support in the plant.

The UAW took a similar approach to organizing VW's 1,550 hourly workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Those workers are in the middle of a three-day secret ballot election on UAW representation. The union's efforts at the VW plant were backed at different times by leaders at IG Metall and VW's works council.

If it wins this week's vote in Tennessee, industry observers and analysts expect the UAW to focus next on the 17-year-old Mercedes plant in Alabama and its 3,000 hourly workers. UAW President Bob King has said organizing the U.S. plants of foreign automakers is critical to the union's future.

Daimler executives have repeatedly said that any decision regarding union representation at the Alabama plant is up to the employees.

The company reiterated in a statement on Thursday that it will remain neutral but added, "We believe the culture we have established [in Alabama] is our best path forward for a successful future."

Last month, the UAW asked the U.S. National Labor Relations Board to investigate the Vance plant, charging the German automaker with "interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of their rights," including threatening to fire them if they solicited for the union inside the plant.

No determination on the UAW charges has been made yet by the U.S. labor relations agency. But Daimler disagreed with the union's version of events and said the company will be exonerated in the hearing, which is scheduled for April 7.

In addition to its push in Tennessee, the UAW has said it has active organizing drives in Vance, as well as at a Nissan Motor Co. plant in Tennessee near Nashville and at another in Mississippi near Jackson.

Gary Casteel, the UAW regional director of a 12-state area that includes Alabama and Tennessee, said that in the past few years the union has been paying a lot more attention to the global nature of the automakers.

"The companies globalized a long time ago, and workers' rights didn't follow suit," he said. "It's time that the workers' rights caught up, and that's the reason you see all the interaction between international unions and a global strategy."

Under King, whose four-year term as UAW president expires in June, the union has paid much more attention to global organizing and reaching out for the help of other unions, said Sean McAlinden, chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research.

"Bob knew the big problem was globalization," McAlinden said. "You have to get on the plane and cut deals overseas."

As part of that effort, the UAW and other unions are represented in Daimler's World Employee Committee (WEC), which helps the automaker's works council figure out what their colleagues outside Germany are doing. Daimler said it cooperates closely with the committee, which was founded in 2002.

"Another objective of the WEC is to strengthen and deepen the dialogue and information transfer between the various employee representatives and unions," Daimler said in a statement.

The head of Daimler's work council sounds like his counterpart at VW did, saying the U.S. Mercedes plant workers need some type of voice within the company and that he would welcome their organization.

"So far, the plant is the only one without representation in the World Employee Committee," said Erich Klemm, who is also deputy chairman of Daimler's supervisory board. "It is not sufficient that the management provides a corporate culture of open ears to worker's concerns without having any binding democratic structures to exchange views.

"As in every factory, there are issues such as shift plans that need to be dealt with by management and labor representatives in a formal way," he added.

Elizabeth Kelly, 56, a team leader in quality control at the Alabama plant who works an overnight shift, saw no connection between the UAW's efforts in Tennessee and at her plant, which builds a variety of crossover vehicles and this summer will add production of the recently redesigned C-class compact.

"The UAW supporters believe that if a union is voted in in Chattanooga, it will help their cause here," said the 16-year veteran of the plant, who opposes the UAW. "I tend to believe that it doesn't really affect us one way or the other. It's two totally different companies."

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