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Mercedes-Benz violated Alabama workers' organizing rights, judge rules

UPDATED: 7/29/14 5:32 pm ET - adds background

An administrative judge for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. violated the organizing rights of workers at its Vance, Ala., plant by not allowing the distribution of union literature in common areas during off-work hours.

A charge initially filed Sept. 3 alleged the automaker violated the National Labor Relations Act, citing a number of complaints of unfair labor practices. Judge Keltner Locke dismissed all other complaints in the charge, saying Mercedes took “prompt remedial action.”

But Locke in the ruling issued last week found Mercedes violated the act when it told employees they could not disseminate union materials in the plant’s atriums and team centers, which he determined were mixed-use areas. The company also was found in violation for “maintaining a solicitation and distribution rule which employees reasonably could understand to prohibit all solicitation in work areas.”

The ruling did not impose any penalties but said Mercedes must amend its solicitation and distribution rule to make it explicit that employees off the clock may solicit other employees also not on work time.

In an e-mailed statement, Mercedes said Locke affirmed the company’s stance that it did not violate workers’ rights and did not threaten or harass workers.

“The judge also stated that MBUSI truly sought to be neutral at all times and not to interfere with Team Members,” the statement added. “There are aspects of the ruling that we don’t agree with and we are evaluating next steps.”

An administrative judge’s decision can be appealed to the NLRB in Washington. If no appeals or exceptions are filed, the ruling becomes an order of the NLRB and thus is binding legal precedent.

The UAW has been making efforts at the Vance plant similar to those it made to promote the vote to organize at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. German union IG Metall has been making house calls to Vance employees and collecting signed cards in support of the UAW since 2011.

The UAW had no immediate comment on the ruling. The Detroit News reported the findings on Monday.

Don White, a material handling team member who has worked at the plant for 19 years, said he was a party to one of the complaints.

He and other employees were told they were not allowed to hand out union literature in the atrium during nonproduction hours, and plant security told them to go outside the facility’s gate.

After consulting with labor lawyers who told them that they did have the right to solicit in common areas during off hours, White and other employees submitted their complaint.

“We’re allowed to talk about church, football, anything else,” White said. “There has been a lot of intimidation to keep us from trying to organize.”

He said that while he considers Mercedes a great place to work and said the judge’s ruling was fair, he was bothered by the fact that the company was found guilty of violating federal law, yet still came out saying it was neutral.

“[The ruling] really opened people’s eyes to see that if something unlawful is going on, there is an avenue to deal with it," White said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

You can reach Katie Burke at -- Follow Katie on Twitter: @KatieGBurke

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