Casteel: Labor-management model worth importing

Gary Casteel

Back in 1993, state and local officials in Alabama declared that a newly announced Mercedes-Benz assembly plant near Tuscaloosa represented a “historic moment” for the Cotton State that would usher in a new era of economic prosperity.

Indeed, more than two decades later, the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant west of Birmingham has produced more than 2 million vehicles and created about 3,500 jobs. However, Alabama officials probably didn’t anticipate nearly 30 percent of those jobs would be temporary positions with low wages and benefits.

Car manufacturers often pledge high-quality jobs in seeking state and local incentives for relocations or expansions. But in a growing number of cases, especially in the U.S. South, automakers deliver less than promised.

This trend is especially troubling when it comes to German carmakers like Daimler, which owns MBUSI. In most plants around the world, Daimler adheres to the German principle of “co-determination” between management and employees — and recognizes workers’ rights to organize. But in Alabama, Daimler has ignored its own principles of social responsibility.

With MBUSI and similar situations in mind, the UAW and the German trade union IG Metall recently announced the launch of the Transnational Partnership Initiative , a joint project to explore new models of employee representation in the United States.

IG Metall estimates that German-owned auto manufacturers have a total workforce in the U.S. of about 100,000 employees. German manufacturers are exploiting low-wage environments, especially in the South, where working conditions — including health and safety situations — tend to be more challenging for employees.

One goal of the TPI: Collaborate to improve wages and working conditions for employees at German-owned auto manufacturers and suppliers in the U.S. South. Another goal: Expand on the principle of co-determination by establishing German-style works councils or similar bodies to promote employee representation.

In a 2014 statement, Daimler World Employee Committee Chairman Michael Brecht noted: “It should be normal that we have a union at each of our plants.” To continue denying employee representation at MBUSI, he added, is “unacceptable.”

Following Brecht’s comments, MBUSI employees established UAW Local 112 in Tuscaloosa to begin the process of securing a voice in the workplace. About 200 miles northeast, employees at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, established UAW Local 42 for the same purpose.

The push for co-determination is not limited to MBUSI and Volkswagen. The reality is: For every job that’s created in an assembly plant, another seven jobs are created in the supply chain. German parts suppliers have established outposts in the South and around the country, giving large numbers of U.S. workers the opportunity to explore representation.

At the end of the day, the TPI is about a cultural exchange of ideas and practices. The Germans understand, perhaps better than anyone in the world, that what’s best for employees is what’s best for the companies, and vice versa. We can learn from each other, and along the way help educate policymakers, the media and others.

We appreciate the investments by German car companies and parts suppliers in the U.S. We’re hopeful that, as they continue to expand here, they will import the German principles of social responsibility — including the globally recognized commitment to co-determination between management and employees.

To do otherwise would be, as my friend and colleague Michael Brecht said, unacceptable.

Gary Casteel is secretary-treasurer of the UAW and director of the union’s transnational department. He also serves as vice chair of the Daimler World Employee Committee.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.