Judge rules against Mercedes-Benz in Alabama

An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Mercedes-Benz U.S. International illegally restricted workers at its Vance, Alabama factory from distributing union literature and talking about the union..

Mercedes workers have been working with the UAW to form a union and filed unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB after plant management limited the time and spaces where union workers could talk about the union or distribute union information.

The workers and their union argued that no such restrictions were placed on people who were talking about other topics or soliciting for other causes.

Judge Keltner Locke agreed with the union.

The judge, however, said that the company had not tried to intimidate two union supporters as charged by the union and that its illegal actions did not appear to be intentional. The company’s public relations team seized upon this aspect of the ruling to claim that Mercedes did not violate its neutrality pledge to workers seeking to form a union.

The UAW responded that the company’s claim to neutrality was disingenuous.

“It is clear that (Mercedes) has acted with hostility and in direct contempt of its neutrality policy in its dealing with pro-union workers at its Alabama plant,” said Gary Casteel, UAW’s secretary treasurer. “It’s deplorable that Mercedes was found in violation of US law and then publicly claimed it as a victory and an example of its neutral pledge.”

According to Mercedes’ policy, the company

Recognizes the right of workers to organize themselves in labor unions. We safeguard this right at our facilities, even in countries that do not protect the freedom of association. More than 95 percent of the non-management employees in Germany and more than 80 percent of those worldwide are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

But union supporters say that Mercedes management in Vance has been far from neutral since the workers began talking about a union.

“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.”

The judge ruled that Mercedes illegally restricted union supporters from talking about the union in team centers and the factory’s atrium.

There are 20 team centers located throughout the plant. Workers meet in team centers when the shift begins to get their assignments. The centers are also places where workers take breaks, eat meals, and gather before and after their shifts.

David Gilbert, a pro-union Mercedes worker, was told by company representatives that he couldn’t distribute union flyers while he was off duty to other off duty workers while the assembly line was moving.

Gilbert pointed out that other workers solicit for other non-work causes in team centers while the assembly line is moving and that the company was being selective when it chose to enforce its policies about discussing non-work matters on the job.

Gilbert and Clark Garner, another pro-union worker, were also passing out union information before work in the plant’s atrium, a large high-ceiling, enclosed plaza that workers walk through to get to work.

Company representatives told the two that they couldn’t pass out union information in the atrium but later relented. The company continues to insist that the atrium is a work area, but judge Locke disagreed.

Locke said that the area is a mixed-use area, which makes it a proper venue for passing out union information and talking about the union.

Jeremy Kimbrell, a pro-union Mercedes worker, said that Mercedes has made it difficult for workers to talk about the union, so the judge’s decision that definitively identifies two plant spaces as mixed-use areas is a big boost for the organizing campaign.

“If the company would let us address why we want a union during one of our All-Team meetings, we’d do it then,” said Kimbrell. “But they won’t. So instead we have to come early and leave late from work and find times to talk with our co-workers about what we’re trying to do in forming a union. There’s hardly any time to do that. That’s why this team center and atrium issue is a big deal and why the company tried to stop us from being able to exercise our federal rights 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.”

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