By Glynn Wilson –
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Workers at the Mercedes auto plant say they can talk all day long on the job about Alabama football or hunting and killing deer. They just can’t talk about organizing a union.
Mercedes employees and union supporters from across the state gathered at the United Auto Workers union hall in Coaling near the plant in Vance on Monday and spoke out publicly about unlawful and unethical intimidation of workers trying to organize the only Daimler-Chrysler manufacturing facility in the world that is not already unionized.
A committee of workers filed a complaint against the company alleging violations of the National Labor Relations Act with The National Labor Relations Board, and the board issued a formal complaint charging the German automaker with unlawfully “interfering with, restraining and coercing, employees in the exercise of their rights” under the law.
The complaint says Mercedes-Benz U.S. International interfered with employees’ rights by prohibiting them from talking about organizing a union during work time or even on the plant premises. It says management officials threatened employees with termination if they even discussed anything about a union, and threatened to fire employees if they were caught soliciting on behalf of a union.
George Jones, a former union president who has worked at Mercedes for more than 17 years, said he came to speak up and let the public and corporate officials know that the company is not living up to the law or its own Principles of Corporate Social Responsibilities.
One of the major issue for Mercedes employees is the use of temporary workers or “temps.” The number of temps has increased dramatically over the past few years, they say. New employees are being hired through North American On-Site, a temporary staffing company in Tuscaloosa, and they are performing the same jobs as full-time Mercedes workers. Yet they receive roughly half the pay, lower benefits, little or no vacation time, and are often mistreated, according to worker testimony.
The president of the company recently issued an edict, they say, apparently with no irony intended, announcing that Mercedes would be keeping on some so-called “temp” workers indefinitely as “permanent temps,” rather than putting them through a 90-day to six month probationary period and then promoting them to full-time employees with full pay and benefits. Workers testified that this has seriously damaged worker moral.
“We have temporary workers out there who have been there for three years or more,” Jones said. “As a team member you should work together. If they are capable of doing the job as good if not better than some of the permanent workers, they should have an opportunity to (become) a full-time worker and have the same benefits that we do.”
He said as long as he works at Mercedes he will always want a union.
“That’s the only way we can get what is necessary (to) have a voice. Right now we really don’t have a voice as to what goes on on a day to day basis.,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been striving for for 17 years, and we will continue to do that until we are successful.”
He said the company has fought their attempts to organize a union the entire time.
“We’ve been intimated. They use scare tactics. They scare the rest of my team members,” Jones said. “If we had the opportunity to freely express ourselves and enlighten the team members on the importance of being in a union (and if Mercedes management were actually behaving neutrally as their global policy states) we would be unionized.”
Jim Spitzley, who has worked at Mercedes for more than 17 years in the Quality Department, said he sees more support for the union now than ever before, but he knows that management’s scare tactics have had a profound, negative effect on the campaign. He talked about the intimidation of workers, fear mongering on behalf of management, threatening remarks about workers not being promoted and even fired if they even so much as mention the idea of forming a union.
“This has to be stopped,” Spitzley said. “We do want a voice in our work place.”
Workers need the right to help make decisions about what goes on in their specific work area for health and safety reasons, with their medical benefits and retirement plans.
“We don’t have that,” he said. “It’s all being decided for us.”
On the issue of temp workers, he said, “Mercedes needs to stop the unfair practice of hiring temporary workers on a long-term basis. They need to be on the same level as a full-time team member.”
He has a son working at the plant who was hired right out of high school. He has been employed for almost four years and was told he would never attain full-time status and would remain a “permanent temp.”
“They need full-time status,” he said. “Not only does it hurt them, it hurts the community as a whole.”
He said if Mercedes was being neutral, “We would already have a union in place … but without the principles being followed, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Watch the video here…
State Senator Bobby Singleton, a Democrat from Greensboro, also spoke out on behalf of the workers and their right to form a union under the law and the company’s international policy.
“While Alabama is a Right-to-Work state, we believe that the people should have a right to choose,” Singleton said. “I am a supporter of the workers at Mercedes and their concerns about how they are treated on the job and have no voice through a union.”
He said the company’s policy of relying on temporary workers “hurts communities in Alabama.”
“We believe Mercedes should obey a higher law of justice and fairness and human rights, including the international labor standerds that say the right to join a union is a universal human right,” he said. “It is unjust that a global company such as Mercedes promotes neutrality towards union organizing all over the globe while discouraging Alabama workers from exercising their rights.”
Singleton says he supports the complaint filed by the workers with the NLRB and asks that Mercedes “stop their mistreatment of Alabama workers.”
He has introduced a bill in the state Senate to force companies which receive massive tax breaks to locate in the state to reduce the percentage of temp workers to no more than 1 percent of their work force.
He pointed out that Governor Robert Bentley said in his State of the State address that “all Alabama workers should have a good paying job.”
Yet the governor has also publicly supported Mercedes in fighting a union at the plant.
According to Singleton, this violates the pledge the company made when it was granted tax breaks to open its manufacturing facility in Alabama.
“When people are working on temporary jobs, they can’t buy homes, they can’t buy cars, there’s no stability in their work,” Singleton said. “We’re asking that Mercedes abide the national labor standards and give the people that works for you the right to choose whether or not they want a union.”
Watch the video here…
Mercedes workers also have the support of their coworkers in Germany. IG Metall, the German union that represents Mercedes workers there, along with the Daimler Works Council, have publicly said they will not tolerate Daimler undermining the rights of its U.S. workforce.
Since 2011, representatives of IG Metall and the Daimler Works Council have met with workers in Alabama and assisted in organizing efforts, according to a statement issued by the United Auto Workers. Pro-union workers at MBUSI have many issues within the plant that they believe a union would allow them to address with management, including workplace injuries.
Don White, who works in Material Handling and has worked at Mercedes for more than 18 years, said it is true that full-time Mercedes workers receive good pay and benefits. That is not why workers are trying to organize.
“That’s not the issues,” he said.
What workers are concerned about are the policy on temp workers and plant safety issues.
“We have numerous injuries reported almost daily,” he said. “Mercedes talks about being proactive. But I can tell you from experience they are reactive.”
Failing equipment and ergonomic issues have been reported to management, but “nothing gets done until someone gets hurt,” White said. “Then it’s a knee-jerk reaction. They come out and try to fix these things. If we were unionized we would have a voice and a say and be able to take action ahead of time.”
He also has a son who works in the plant who has undergone three surgeries due to ergonomic issues with equipment that the company has still not fixed.
He said the same job in Germany is handled differently.
“But our management won’t talk to us about that,” he said.
On the issue of temp workers, he said, all through the Daimler organization and the other big 3 automakers there is a limit on temps. In Alabama, perhaps up to 60 percent of the work force in the assembly shops are carried on temp status for years and never promoted to full-time employees.
“That’s not what this state needs to be economically sound,” he said. “We refuse to be threatened. We refuse to be treated like second-class citizens here in Alabama.”
Watch the video here…
Watch the question and answer session…
A hearing on the NLRB complaint is scheduled for April 7 at the National Labor Relations Board in Birmingham.
Some of the workers and Singleton spoke out against a bill pending in the Alabama Legislature to add a so-called Right-to-Work amendment to the state Constitution, saying it could further jeopardize working conditions and pay in the state. A hearing was scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday before the Senate Business and Labor Committee in Montgomery, although it was canceled due to the heavy snowfall and ice on the roads from Birmingham to the Gulf Coast.
Union officials, including AFL-CIO President Al Henley, have vowed to fight it again this year. A similar effort died last year on the last day of the legislative session.
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.