VANCE, Alabama -- The United Auto Workers union is campaigning to organize at Alabama's Mercedes-Benz plant, one of several southern U.S. auto factories the group has in its sights.
Union materials are being distributed to employees of the German automaker, which launched Alabama's auto industry.
The effort is being supported by the German union IG Metall. Its representatives have been in Alabama helping build support for the UAW, and organizers have moved into a bigger office near Mercedes' Tuscaloosa County plant, according to a newsletter outlining the activities.
It's not clear how much traction the campaign has gained -- attempts to reach officials with the union and Mercedes were unsuccessful -- but the activity has been building for at least a year, dates on the materials show.
A website, www.uawvance.org, is called a resource for the plant's employees as they consider unionization.
On the website, the UAW says its vision for Mercedes is to "create a dynamic and unique local union in Tuscaloosa that becomes a model for labor relations in the 21st Century."
IG Metall also is backing the UAW's ongoing campaign at the Chattanooga, Tenn., auto plant operated by Volkswagen, another German automaker.
Elsewhere in the South, the UAW is campaigning at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.
Mercedes kicked off Alabama's auto sector when it selected Tuscaloosa County for its first U.S. plant in 1993. A number of foreign automakers, including Honda and Hyundai in this state, and others in surrounding states, followed.
Organizing any of the transplants would be a major coup for the UAW, since the South's auto sector remains largely non-union.
But the group has had success at parts suppliers. For instance, five of Mercedes' suppliers in Alabama are unionized, including two that held votes won by the UAW in the past year.
A successful union drive at one of the transplants could affect future attempts to build the South's auto sector, said Jay St. Clair, an attorney at Littler Mendelson's Birmingham office and an adjunct professor who teaches labor law at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law.
"I don't think there's any doubt the reason that a lot of these automakers chose to operate in the South is they thought their chances were high that they could operate union-free," he said. "I suppose if one of the big automakers were to become unionized, that might dissuade companies from bringing more plants to the South."
But if a union does organize one of the automakers, St. Clair doesn't think that alone will create a domino effect at others. Instead, it will depend on the outcome of negotiations between the company and the union, as it pertains to salaries, benefits or other issues, he said.
Union attempts to organize at Mercedes are nothing new, and so far have been unsuccessful. Key efforts by the UAW were in 1999-2000 and again in 2007, while the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers made an attempt in 2006.
The UAW's activity in Vance comes amid a major growth spurt for the plant, which is preparing to add the C-Class sedan to its assembly lines next year and a new SUV in 2015. The plant's 3,000 workers currently build the M-Class and GL-Class SUVs and the R-Class crossover.
Combined, the new models will bring an additional 1,400 jobs, and advertising for many of those new positions has begun.
Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said Alabama's status as a right-to-work state is a key selling point in recruiting new business. Companies in the U.S. and abroad are supportive of that, he said.
"We're confident in Alabama's position as a right-to-work state and in the management and team building process in place at Mercedes," Canfield said.
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