UAW Tries Southern Union Gambit

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In a new effort to gain a foothold in non-union southern auto plants, the United Auto Workers is pushing DaimlerChrysler AG to allow hundreds of UAW members to transfer outside the Chrysler Group to the company's big assembly plant in Alabama and a proposed plant in Georgia.

Nate Gooden, director of the United Auto Workers’ DaimlerChrysler Department, has confirmed that the union is pressing the company to agree to an unprecedented transfer agreement, which would send UAW members to the nonunion Mercedes-Benz plant near Vance, Ala.

"They're going to hire almost 2000 people down there when they finish with the paint shop," said Gooden, who is also a member of the DaimlerChrysler supervisory board in Germany.
"It's a goal for me," added Gooden. "I've been talking to them for two years," he said. The transfer also would help solidify the union's efforts to turn the plant in Vance into a union shop.

DaimlerChrysler officials have declined to comment on specifics related to ongoing negotiations. DaimlerChrysler's current contract with the UAW, covering 66,000 hourly and salaried workers, expires Sept. 14. The union's contracts with GM and Ford expire the same day.

Shifting priorities

John Franciosi, the Chrysler Group's top labor negotiator, has said the company needed to boost productivity. The campaign to raise productivity, either by closing inefficient operations or reducing staffing in other plants, would make union workers available for transfers. More than 686 workers from a Chrysler plant in New Castle, Ind., are now eligible for transfer and Chrysler also is phasing out work at a glass plant in Detroit. The Chrysler Group also has a potential buyer lined up for its components plant in Huntsville, Ala., which now employs almost 2000.

None of the sales or plants closings can be finalized without union approval. Meanwhile, construction crews are putting up a 1.9 million-square-foot addition to the Mercedes-Benz Group assembly plant in Vance, near Tuscaloosa, Ala. The addition will more than double the size of the current plant, which began building vehicles in 1997 — a year before the merger of Daimler-Benz and the Chrysler Corp. created DaimlerChrysler AG.

The Vance plant now employs about 2000 workers, none of whom belong to the UAW. The addition is scheduled for completion in 2004, when the plant will begin building a new Mercedes-Benz GST touring wagon along with the next M-Class.

The addition is expected to employ about 2000 workers. The Mercedes-Benz group has recruited a small number of employees, but the bulk of the hiring is yet to be done.

Card checks

Gooden predicted when talks opened with DaimlerChrysler in July that the Alabama plant would be unionized within the next twelve months. Hanging a union banner on the Mercedes-Benz plant would be a major victory for the UAW, which up until now has been shut out of the growing list of assembly plants operated by Asian and European manufacturers.

In 2001, the union lost a bitter organizing drive at Nissan's big assembly complex in Smyrna, Tenn. Union officials later blamed the loss on the shock of Sept. 11, which made workers fearful of change, and a last-minute anti-union campaign by Nissan executives.

Gooden lobbied and cajoled DaimlerChrysler's top executives and finally made a breakthrough last winter. More than 3100 employees at Freightliner plants in Cleveland and Gastonia, N.C. joined the union in February after a card check tabulated by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The union now favors card checks because workers can vote in the privacy of their homes away from direct management pressure that can flourish during an election supervised by the NLRB.

Gooden also has said he expects the union to be present from Day One in the new commercial van assembly plant DaimlerChrysler has proposed building outside Savannah, Ga. Since one of the vans built at the plant will carry a Dodge label, Gooden has said the vans must be built by union members.

Plans for the Georgia plant are on hold, the company said in statement issued last month. The statement, however, did not mention canceling the project, indicating it will go ahead as the economy recovers.

The final UAW contract, however, is expected to include language that would open the door to Chrysler Group employees to transfer to Georgia, even though the plant will be operated by a different business unit, DaimlerChrysler's Commercial Vehicle Group, which is based in Europe.

Gooden has taken up the challenge at DaimlerChrysler by pressing the company to adopt what he describes as a uniform labor policy that would eliminate the use of anti-union consultants by American subsidiaries, such as Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz.

Instead, the union has stressed the need for managers to remain neutral during any organizing drive.

"We've accomplished a lot together. It's not that we don't have our disagreements, but we have a very open dialogue," he said earlier this year.

Juergen Schrempp, DaimlerChrysler AG chairman, said during a conference call in July that he had several "deep" discussions with Gooden about the challenges faced by the Chrysler Group.

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