The Uaw's Next Battleground

The union is making recruitment a priority, and the first skirmish may well be with DaimlerChrysler

In April, the United Auto Workers (UAW) started an unusual organizing drive at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Ala. The union told management that it wouldn't attack the company as anti-union or even pass out pro-union leaflets. It didn't seem like such a daring offer. After all, the plant was part of the new DaimlerChrysler family--one of two factories in the sprawling trans-Atlantic auto empire where blue-collar workers were not in a union. And UAW President Stephen P. Yokich was a member of the new DaimlerChrysler board of directors.

The UAW expected a peaceful recruitment drive that would set a congenial tone for this summer's talks between the union and Detroit's Big Three. The UAW says that both DaimlerChrysler co-chairmen, Jurgen E. Schrempp and Robert J. Eaton, assured the union that Mercedes would not interfere.

COVERT AID. But now what seemed like a minor issue over organizing 1,200 Mercedes workers is threatening to erupt into a full-scale war between the UAW and DaimlerChrysler. On July 8, Yokich flew to Stuttgart for a DaimlerChrysler board meeting and blasted Schrempp for allowing Mercedes to provide covert aid to a group of anti-union workers at the plant. He is even considering use of what UAW officials call their "nuclear bomb": a nationwide strike by DaimlerChrysler's 76,000 workers when labor pacts with the Big Three expire on Sept. 14. Schrempp and Eaton decline to comment, but a DaimlerChrysler official says that its bargainers are taking the issue "very, very seriously." Says Jack Laskowski, head of the UAW's Chrysler unit: "We have a great relationship with Chrysler, but the way Mercedes is acting in Alabama jeopardizes everything we have worked so hard for."

The dustup with DaimlerChrysler affects General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., too. The Mercedes drive is part of a larger UAW campaign to include the right to organize as part of its bargaining agenda in this year's car talks. The target: the auto-parts industry's 400,000 workers. The demand: that carmakers tell their suppliers to remain neutral when the union tries to recruit.

Until now, auto execs doubted Yokich would make such a risky strategy a top priority. It's one thing to ask companies to stop anti-union behavior in- house. It's far trickier--and maybe legally questionable--to ask a company to dictate what its suppliers can do.

That DaimlerChrysler could turn out to be the Big Three problem child is a bit surprising. Up until bargaining began on June 14, observers had expected GM to be the focus of UAW ire. But union leaders and GM seem to be patching up their differences over the spin-off of Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., GM's former parts unit. And GM has postponed plans to switch some factories to modular assembly--an approach that shifts some assembly work to suppliers.

Now, the auto giants have gotten a taste of Yokich's determination: In the first round of talks, with Ford, Yokich's opening demand was for neutrality in organizing drives. In 1997, Ford had refused to deal with parts supplier Johnson Controls Inc. when it shut out the UAW. Yokich made it clear that he wants the same kind of support in the future.

At Mercedes, the UAW says it will go to the mat because it feels the workers would welcome the union if management didn't oppose it. Pro-union workers say nearly 200 joined the union committee the first week it was formed in April. Then, a counterattack by the anti-union group intimidated workers into quitting, the union says.

Even those opposing the union admit that workers at Vance have reasons to complain. Chief among them: onerous workloads and widespread repetitive- stress injuries. To meet demand, the plant, which builds sport-utility vehicles, is making 188 SUVs a shift on a line designed for 138. "The company cut corners when they built this plant, so there are dozens of carpal tunnel injuries, which is a legitimate issue for the union," concedes Ollie Cox, a member of the anti-union group. Mercedes claims the injury rate isn't high but won't give figures. It also says it hired 300 workers and put in automation when output expanded.

Union supporters say turnover hits 10% a year in some departments, surprising at jobs that pay $20 an hour, twice what many local ones pay. "People leave because of burnout; it's great pay, but no one thinks they can last here five years," says pro-union worker Randy Prescott. Again, Mercedes contradicts the union, putting the turnover rate at about 1% a year.

Is the company helping the anti-union campaign, as the UAW alleges? William Taylor, the plant president, insists that he and other managers don't try to influence employees. Yet Cox and another anti-union committee member, Wade A. Smith, say managers routinely have told workers that they don't need a third party in their relationship. And workers say it's clear where management stands. When ZF Industries Inc., a local Mercedes supplier, defeated the UAW in an election, Mercedes put the news up on its internal TV and called employee meetings to repeat the news.

CONTROVERSIAL VIDEO. Employees also say that when they were hired, Mercedes showed them a 45-minute orientation video in which actors portrayed union members harassing workers. It shows a man jumping on an older women's car in a factory parking lot to prevent her from leaving until she signs up to join the union. Mercedes says it stopped showing the video in late April. But one new hire says Mercedes showed him a similar video during his May 6 orientation.

The anti-union committee has received financing from both local business owners and the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, which helped Mercedes win tax breaks for the plant. Committee members say they show the same anti-union video as Mercedes has used in its orientations. Cox and Smith say they got it, plus anti-UAW literature, from authority officials who have addressed their meetings and paid for the hotel rooms where they're held, they said.

The UAW charges that this has all been done with Mercedes' blessing. But J. Dara Longgrear, head of the authority, and Taylor deny this is the case. "The union effort appears to us as outsiders coming in and dictating how our people will be."

DaimlerChrysler may find it difficult to resolve the Mercedes mess. The only way to prove it is neutral, says union committee member Robert Busch, would be for Schrempp to go to Alabama to counter the anti-union message. That seems unlikely. But if 76,000 DaimlerChrysler workers demand action, Schrempp will have to think of something--or face the consequences in September.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.