Tuscaloosa, Alabama — The United Auto Workers union said Friday it is forming a local branch aimed at representing the Mercedes plant in Alabama in a move mirroring its efforts with fellow German automaker Volkswagen in Tennessee.
UAW President Dennis Williams was joined by top labor officials at Mercedes parent Daimler AG and the German union IG Metall to announce the new effort to organize the plant, which is the company's only factory worldwide without labor representation.
"It's time for the committed and hard-working employees (in Tuscaloosa) to have the same representation that Daimler employees enjoy around the world," Williams said. "It's the right thing to do."
The UAW made a similar move at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after narrowly losing a union vote in a contentious February election. The union has said it has reached a "consensus" with VW that it will recognize the UAW there without another vote once they sign up enough workers.
Volkswagen has said there is no formal agreement.
While the UAW has so far been thwarted in its attempts to organize any foreign automaker in the South, it has been gaining support from powerful labor representatives who serve on the supervisory boards of German automakers Daimler and Volkswagen.
Michael Brecht, who heads Daimler's works councils and serves as deputy chairman of the board, visited the plant and workers before attending a UAW news conference on Friday.
"We lend our support to all workers at Daimler so they can make their voices heard and be represented by a strong union," he said.
Brecht questioned why the company has been cooperating with labor officials to establish a union at a plant in India, but has resisted a similar move in Alabama.
"It is my clear understanding that this is unacceptable, and has to change," he said.
Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told reporters during a recent plant visit that the company pledges neutrality on union issues at the factory and that he sees "no surprises or major tensions" over the issue with labor representatives on the board.
"That's for our employees to make their call and to take their vote," Zetsche said. "And in this regard, the team here in Tuscaloosa has decided for the last 20 years not to organize with the UAW or any other union."
Plant spokeswoman Felyicia Jerald on Friday reiterated management's neutrality on labor issues, and said in an email that the company remains committed to "a safe and professional workplace where they have an open, continuous dialogue with their colleagues and supervisors on all matters related to their job."
"We believe that the culture we have established is our best path forward for a successful future," she said.
Brecht said his impression from Daimler managers is that it's unlikely they would recognize a union at the Mercedes plant in Alabama without a secret ballot.
The organization of foreign automakers in the South is seen as crucial to the survival of the UAW, where collected dues dropped 40 percent between 2006 and 2012 as the union's ranks fell by 30 percent.
For the UAW, dues won't rise by much without an influx of fresh recruits in the South, where most of the auto industry's growth is occurring. And the union's best chance at success appears to lie with automakers like Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW, because of German legal requirements that half of their supervisory boards are made up worker representatives, who can put pressure for more labor-friendly policies.