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Alabama's Auto Industry Woes Benefit Unions

In the past, lack of union activity in Alabama's auto industry has been a key selling point for the state when courting new business in the sector.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- Unions haven't had much luck getting their feet in the door to Alabama's automotive industry during boom times that stretch back to the mid-1990s when the first vehicles started rolling off state assembly lines.

But some are wondering whether that could change now that those same plants are struggling amid an industrywide sales slump that has forced production cutbacks and a loss of hours for workers.

Mercedes-Benz and Honda, which have slashed output at their respective factories in Vance and Lincoln, have been the target of union organizing efforts over the years.

A representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers returned to Vance for a regularly scheduled meeting with Mercedes employees and says he hopes to find a more receptive audience.

Union membership would be in workers' best interest, especially during these uncertain times in the industry, said Don Barker, grand lodge representative for the machinists. A founding principle of the group is seniority, which would be important if layoffs happen, he said.

"Without a union contract, employers can pick and choose who they want to furlough or lay off," he said. "Those folks that came in when Mercedes first opened and got the production line going should now be protected, and under the current system, they're not."

The machinists union started organizing efforts at Mercedes in March 2005 and has stayed in contact with some employees despite a widespread lack of interest. Barker's last visit was six to eight months ago, and he expects to hear from his contacts this week whether interest has piqued enough.

"We'll see whether we want to step up or continue doing what we've been doing, which is share information and educate workers for when the time comes," he said.

Felyicia Jerald, spokeswoman for the Mercedes plant, said union decisions are up to employees, and the company feels employees are informed enough to make a responsible decision.

But she added that since the company began operating in Alabama, there has been open communication with employees, and they have direct access to management. Even with Mercedes' recent production cutbacks, no one has lost a job, she said.

"This is a difficult economic environment right now, not only for the automotive industry, but across the board," she said. "Even with all that's going on, we've created a strong, positive team-oriented environment."

Since national economic conditions and an industry sales slump are driving the cutbacks at the state's assembly plants, the unions' position in Alabama's auto industry is not likely to change, despite the tough times, said Jim Cashman, management professor and business honors program director at the University of Alabama.

That's because local actions are generally what drives labor organizing efforts, he said. For example, a union might find a prime organizing opportunity if managers had done something particularly onerous to get themselves or the plant in financial trouble.

"American unionism is ultimately very local action oriented," he said. "In Europe, this would be prime time for the union, because it is very nationally oriented, but that's not been the case in the modern history of the union movement in America ... very, very local issues are what provides the impetus for the labor movement."

The lack of union activity in Alabama's auto industry has been a key selling point for the state when courting new business in the sector, which supports more than 134,000 jobs and a $5.2 billion annual payroll.

But today, the state industry is weathering its first major storm, as high gas prices and a sour economy have sent consumers fleeing from trucks and sport utilities to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Nationally, the bleeding is worst among truck makers, particularly domestic manufacturers based in the heavily unionized automotive Midwest. The foreign automakers who have set up shop in Alabama have not suffered as much, although they have not been immune.

Germany's Mercedes and Japan's Honda have both slashed output to match demand, and the plans called for suspending production on certain days and canceling particular shifts. Hyundai, the state's third auto assembly plant, has not announced any cutbacks.

Mercedes recently implemented a plan to scale back to 32-hour, four-day work weeks, an employee said, but there have been no layoffs. Employees will be able to take vacation days to maintain their regular pay, and they also can sign up for limited non-production duties if they need to work.

There also have been no layoffs at Honda. Employees there have the option of maintaining their regular pay by taking vacation time or by reporting to work and participating in training or other duties. They also may opt to take time off with no pay and no penalty for not reporting to work.

Officials with the United Auto Workers have been quiet about union organizing activities at Mercedes and Honda. Efforts to reach the union last week were unsuccessful.

Mark Morrison, spokesman for the Lincoln plant, said Honda is focusing on its flexible manufacturing systems to maintain its competitive edge in the tough economic environment.

He noted that Honda is bringing production of the Ridgeline pickup to Lincoln next year, which will provide more work for employees, and the automaker also is studying bringing in an additional model.

Honda also is focused on communicating directly with employees, Morrison said.

"Any decision we make regarding production adjustments, our associates are foremost in our mind," he said. "We're committed to keep our associates receiving full paychecks and continuing to have the option of coming to work."

Last fall, Honda spoke out publicly against the UAW's efforts to organize the Lincoln plant, saying a union is unnecessary and a successful campaign "would radically change" the automaker's operations there.

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