- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Alabama’s automotive industry is characterized by rapid growth, massive investment by foreign automakers and the absence of organized labor.

No employees at the seven vehicle assembly and engine plants that are the foundation of the state’s auto industry are represented by a union. Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., hope to become the first to organize in union-wary Alabama.

“We want a union, and one of us has got to go first to give the rest of these boys an opportunity. Somebody’s got to get these dominoes falling,” said Bobby Ray Thomas, a 49-year-old inspector who has worked at the Mercedes-Benz plant since production began in 1997.

An effort began three weeks ago to organize 3,000 production and maintenance workers at the plant, where employees assemble M Class, R Class and GL Class sport utility vehicles.

The union drive is significant because organized labor has been unable to penetrate the state’s surging auto industry and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) — not the United Auto Workers — is behind the effort.

Mercedes-Benz workers said cuts in health benefits for retirees, forced overtime, treatment of temporary workers and absence of seniority rights convinced them to push for union representation.

They aren’t seeking better wages. Production workers at top scale earn $26.44 an hour, Mr. Thomas said, and maintenance workers at top scale earn nearly $30 an hour.

Nor are problems at U.S. automakers providing momentum to form a union now, workers said. General Motors Corp. posted a $10.6 billion loss in 2005, plans to close nine factories and cut 30,000 jobs by 2008, and last week offered buyouts to 125,000 workers.

“It’s about having a voice,” said George Jones, a 38-year-old who inspects raw materials at the Mercedes-Benz plant.

Foreign automakers often pay high wages and offer lucrative benefits to prevent workers from seeking union representation, said Bernard Swiecki, project manager at the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Foreign automakers employ union workers only at plants that operate as joint ventures with U.S. automakers, such as the Fremont, Calif., facility where General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. assemble the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Corolla, Mr. Swiecki said.

Union organizers are flooding television and radio stations that reach into Tuscaloosa County with advertisements, have an ad on one billboard near the plant and plan to rent another billboard.

Company officials said they will remain impartial throughout the organizing drive.

“The decision is up to the team members,” Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Linda Sewell said.

Mercedes-Benz opened the plant in 1997 — the first year any vehicles were produced in Alabama — initiating a wave of investment by automakers and suppliers in the state. Nearly 45,000 people work at auto assembly plants, engine plants and suppliers throughout the state.

Honda and Hyundai also operate assembly plants in Alabama. Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and truck manufacturer Navistar International Corp. also make engines in the state.

There were 44 percent more auto industry jobs in the state last year than in 2003, according to a survey released last month by the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Industry. Mercedes-Benz has completed a $600 million expansion of the Tuscaloosa County plant to increase production to 160,000 vehicles a year.

IAM’s attempt to organize workers at Mercedes-Benz isn’t the first union drive at the plant. The UAW failed to persuade workers to join the union in 1999 and 2000, and this year a group of Mercedes-Benz workers approached the IAM and asked it to try again.

“No one’s been able to organize workers there before. I’m watching this with great interest,” Mr. Swiecki said.

Workers said they picked the IAM because the union promised to hold a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election rather than try to unionize through a card check program, an approach allowing workers to join a union once a majority sign cards asking for representation, provided an employer agrees to the signup program. Employers typically oppose card check and want unions to use an NLRB election.

Workers at Mercedes-Benz view an election as more legitimate than card check, said Don Barker, an organizer with the IAM who is heading the assembly plant’s union drive.

“Let the people vote their conscience,” said Dobbie Norris, a 46-year-old plant employee who began working at Mercedes-Benz in 1996, before production began. “We may win, and we may not. But it won’t be for lack of effort.”

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