By Glynn Wilson –
Mercedes was found guilty this week of violating labor law against employees by an administrative law judge ruling for the National Labor Relations board.
Judge Keltner W. Locke ruled that Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance near Tuscaloosa committed three violations in dealing with employees who were working to try to unionize the plant.
The 27-page ruling, issued Thursday, failed to impose any fines on Mercedes. But the judge ordered the German company to revise its rules in its employee handbook on the solicitation and distribution of union literature.
The judge found specific acts and conduct on the part of Mercedes management that he said violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act.
The company violated the law by:
(a) Maintaining an overly broad solicitation and distribution rule which employees reasonably would understand to prohibit solicitation, in work areas, by employees not on working time of other employees not on working time.
(b) Prohibiting an employee not on working time from distributing union literature in one of Respondent’s team centers, which are mixed use areas within the Respondent’s plant.
(c) Prohibiting employees not on working time from distributing union literature in the atrium, which is a mixed use area within the Respondent’s plant.
The ruling came in response to a complaint filed last year that accused Mercedes management of unfair labor practices. You can see our previous coverage, including videos of statements by workers, in The Locust Fork News-Journal.
At a hearing in April held in Birmingham, the United Auto Workers union and workers at the plant, including Kirk Garner, the lead plaintiff, testified that Mercedes managers had harassed and intimidated employees who were working to try to form a union by simply distributing information around the factory.
Mercedes’ attorneys argued that the only restrictions imposed were designed to assure the safety of workers and efficient production.
Judge Locke ruled employees who are not on the clock can solicit support for a union from other employees even if they are in work areas. He cited the atrium inside the main entrance, where employees gather before and after work and on breaks. Testimony showed that a Mercedes supervisor told employees they could not solicit there.
The judge also ordered Mercedes to post a notice advising employees that the NLRB found the company in violation of federal labor law.
In a written statement, Mercedes indicated the judge’s ruling “largely validates our position that we never violated any team member’s rights.”
“We are especially pleased that the judge found no credible evidence of threats or harassment,” the statement said. “The judge also stated that MBUSI truly sought to be neutral at all times and not to interfere with team members. There are aspects of the ruling that we don’t agree with and we are evaluating next steps.”
Both sides have 28 days to appeal the decision before the judge’s orders take effect.
Jim Spitzley, one of the Mercedes employees involved in trying to form a union, said in a Facebook interview that he is happy the judge ruled in favor of the charges by team members.
“Mercedes has been saying all along that they are neutral in allowing the team members to exercise their right to talk about the union and to distribute literature to team members in the workplace,” he said. “According to NLRB, not!”
Now that it will be made public that big corporations can be held accountable for wrong doing and not allowing employees to campaign and organize for a union and get away with it, he said, efforts will continue to sign memberships and form a local union. He said plans are to charter the new union August 7 at the annual meeting of the International Employee Board.
The union must have 15 employees to sign a charter, he said.
Michael Brecht, World Employee Committee chairman, will be in Vance in the coming weeks, he indicated, after the charter is signed to promote the local union and support from the German IG Metall union and the governing Works Council.
“It’s a win win situation for us because we win the battle on charges filed and we still are going to form a local union even though knowing we won’t be recognized by Mercedes in doing so,” Spitzley said.
Don White, a day shift worker in body shop logistics, said while the judge ruled that Mercedes violated federal law in its effort to stop the workers from unionizing, “the next day the company has its unionbusters out there telling the newspapers that this is an example of neutrality. Really?”
“Kind of like how they say they’re hiring 1000 new workers to build the new C-Class at the plant, but don’t tell the public that those are all going to be temporary jobs forever that pay half the rate of what full Team Members are paid,” White said. “It’s doubletalk, and it’s dishonorable. They were found guilty and I hope they’ll fix the problem.”
Kirk Garner, a c-shift worker in assembly quality, one of the witnesses in the hearing, said he was happy with the ruling.
“I am very disappointed, however, in how the company has conducted itself in the proceedings and in its bold reaction to the ruling now,” he said. “You should have been in the court room in April — the company contracted a notorious union-buster to conduct an anti-union campaign against us in the plant for at least the past year and to represent management in the hearing. Some of the things that he said to me and my coworkers during the hearing — it was outrageous. I’m glad the judge saw through it and ruled in our favor.”
Jeremy Kimbrell, a c-shift worker in assembly logistics, also a witness who testified in the hearing, said: “It’s a big plant. If the company would let us address why we want a union during one of our All-Team meetings, we’d do it then. But they won’t,” he said.
“So instead we have to come early and leave late from work and find times to talk with fellow Team Members about what we’re trying to do in forming a union. There’s hardly any time to do that,” Kimbrell said. “That’s why this Team Center and Atrium issue is a big deal and why the company tried to block us from being able to exercise our rights to organize in them — it’s really one of the only places in the plant where we have a chance to talk with each other off the clock.”
In a statement issued Thursday, the United Auto Workers responded to the reaction of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International management to being found guilty of violations of U.S. federal labor law.
“It is clear that Daimler has acted with hostility and in direct contempt of its neutrality policy in its dealing with pro-union workers at its Alabama plant in Tuscaloosa,” UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said. “It’s deplorable that Mercedes was found in violation of U.S. law and then publicly claimed it as a victory and an example of its neutral pledge.”
Following a three-day hearing at the National Labor Relations Board in April, Administrative Law Judge Keltner Locke ruled that Mercedes violated the National Labor Rights Act (NLRA) by interfering with workers’ union organizing efforts. Specifically, the judge ruled that the company had maintained an “overly broad solicitation and distribution rule” and ordered MBUSI to amend its company policy to bring it into line with federal law. The ruling addresses the primary way in which workers communicate with each other about unionization.
A key point of contention in the hearing was whether team centers and the atrium areas of the plant — where workers routinely take their breaks — are considered work areas and thus off-limits for distribution of union materials. Locke’s ruling declares that the spaces are mixed-use areas and that employees have the right to disseminate union literature in those areas.
Mercedes employees have consistently said that the company violates its own Principles of Corporate Social Responsibility in which it declares neutrality toward unions and union organizing globally.
“We always hear the company stating that they’re neutral, but every team member in that plant knows it simply isn’t true,” said Mercedes employee Rodney Bowens. “If team members aren’t intimidated, then why are they always telling me, ‘I want a union, but I don’t want anybody to know about it.’ The company has created a climate of fear to prevent us from forming a union. In this case they broke federal law to do it, but there are countless other examples of where they use scare tactics to stop people from speaking up about it.”
Workers expressed outrage over Mercedes claiming the judge’s guilty ruling was an example of its neutrality toward union organizing.
“I hope they’ll stop the double-talk,” White said, “and show more integrity with how they deal with us, team members and the Alabama public moving forward.”
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.