October 7, 2003

Union Organizing Remains Muddled in Chrysler Pact


24a02fb.jpgETROIT, 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 organization.

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 DaimlerChrysler A.G.

"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 contract summary.

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 beyond that."

Leonard Barber, president of local 685 in Kokomo, Ind., said, "They just said we have a card check in any facility within the Chrysler Group."

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 jobs."

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.

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