October 7, 2003
Union Organizing Remains Muddled in Chrysler Pact
By DANNY HAKIM
ETROIT, Oct. 6 The Chrysler Group's new contract with the
United Automobile Workers union, ratified by workers last month, fell
short of one of the union's top goals: persuading DaimlerChrysler
to recognize what are known as card checks to unionize American plants
owned by the Mercedes division.
The union has never successfully organized a plant owned solely by a
foreign automaker, but it had hoped it might have an opportunity at
Mercedes because the 1998 acquisition of Chrysler by Daimler-Benz put
Mercedes and Chrysler under the same corporate umbrella.
There are considerable obstacles to organizing plants owned by foreign
companies. Many are in the South, where sentiment often runs against
unions and right-to-work laws mean workers do not have to automatically
join unions even if their workplace is organized.
Plants are normally organized by secret-ballot elections recognized by
the National Labor Relations Board, but because they are often held at
the plants, unions think they give employers something of a home court
advantage. Unions think they have a better chance with card checks, in
which the union gathers cards from employees designating that more than
half of the work force wants to join. Companies are not obligated to
recognize the process, but some agree to do so.
Soon after the U.A.W. and Chrysler reached a tentative agreement last
month, a union summary of the contract provided to Chrysler workers and
obtained by some news organizations said DaimlerChrysler had agreed to
card checks at all of its plants in the United States and listed it as
one of seven highlights of the contract talks. The 17-page summary
added that DaimlerChrysler would send letters to employees saying "the
company `fully respects' the right of employees to form and join
unions" essentially expressing neutrality instead of opposing
But Chrysler executives contend nothing in the contract covered
Mercedes. Instead, the contract itself refers specifically to the
DaimlerChrysler Corporation, which in the DaimlerChrysler corporate
lexicon is a synonym for the Chrysler Group's operations in the United
States, as opposed to DaimlerChrysler A.G., which is based in
Stuttgart, Germany, and is the parent of both Chrysler and Mercedes.
Further confusing the union's summary was a statement that card checks
had been a successful tactic for workers at Freightliner, a division of
"The contract refers to Chrysler Group manufacturing facilities in the
United States," said Mike Aberlich, a spokesman for Chrysler, which has
long been organized, except for some very small operations.
The union's international leadership in Detroit has declined requests
for comment on the highlighting of the card check agreement in the
Obtaining a card check at Mercedes was billed as a priority by Nate
Gooden, the U.A.W.'s top negotiator on the Chrysler contract.
"Vance, Ala., will be a U.A.W. organized plant in the very near
future," he told Reuters during the talks.
When the contract talks were resolved quickly, with the union offering
modest concessions at a tough time for the Big Three, the promise of a
Vance deal appeared to be a concession from DaimlerChrysler.
Soon after the summary was distributed, the contract was ratified by
Chrysler workers, but in conversations over the last week with local
union leaders there did not appear to be a clear understanding of the
card check issue.
"The corporation agreed to recognizing the hourly people if the
majority of them do card check," said Larry Simmons, president of Local
7 in Detroit, which represents about 3,000 hourly Chrysler workers,
referring to Mercedes.
"I think that was a big thing, because the U.A.W. has been trying to
organize Mercedes Benz in Alabama for a long time."
Jim Fisher, president of union local 1183 in Newark, Del., which
represents about 2,200 workers, said "what they actually have with
Mercedes is a neutrality agreement."
They won't do anything negative," he said, "to stop us from going in
there and doing a card check."
Asked again whether there was an agreement for a Mercedes card check,
he said: "They have a neutrality agreement. I can't comment on anything
Leonard Barber, president of local 685 in Kokomo, Ind., said, "They
just said we have a card check in any facility within the Chrysler
Asked whether it extended to Mercedes, he said, "I'd refer you to the
international on that."
Mr. Aberlich of Chrysler, said the deal also included no arrangement to
fill 2,000 new jobs at the Mercedes plant, which is doubling its work
force, with U.A.W. members from other states who needed jobs.
Reports of such a plan had angered state officials.
"When Mercedes decided to locate here, the state offered incentives so
that jobs would be created for Alabama workers," David Azbell, a
spokesman for Gov. Bob Riley, said in an interview on Monday. "The
state did not provide those incentives for out-of-state workers to get
Mr. Gooden could still get the card check and the job arrangement. The
German corporate structure reserves seats on a company's supervisory
board for union leaders, and he has one. But Chrysler has turned into a
money loser for DaimlerChrysler, and management appears to be looking
for cuts, not concessions.