VANCE, Ala. - Steve Yokich is smiling down on the Mercedes factory in Vance, Ala.
From big billboards that face the highway approaches to this 2-year-old sport-utility factory, the UAW president himself smiles warmly at the 1,300 hourly workers who come to work every day.
The billboards beckon the Alabama workers to join the union. They speak of the plant 'working together' with the UAW. They show the UAW logo. And most important, they mention that Yokich now sits on DaimlerChrysler AG's 20-member supervisory board.
'Isn't that a conflict of interest?' asks a plant worker from the Alabama venture, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.
This union-organizing effort clearly has a different slant than other UAW campaigns that have run aground at transplant auto factories over the past decade.
Except for three Japanese-managed auto plants that were launched in partnership with the Big 3 in the 1980s, the UAW has not captured a single foreign-owned auto factory in the United States.
For the past decade, the union has vowed to reel them in and failed. It has created a special department to address the transplants. It has embarked on a union drive at Toyota Motor Corp.'s big plant in Kentucky and walked away in frustration. It campaigned at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. in Smyrna, Tenn., only to lose an election by a 2-to-1 ratio. It tried again at Nissan and gave up shortly afterward. It has enlisted I.G. Metall - the powerful German autoworkers' union - to help recruit workers at BMW Manufacturing Corp. in Spartanburg County, S.C., to no avail. And it has lost recent union elections to organize DaimlerChrysler suppliers in Alabama.
Those efforts relied on the legwork of nameless, hardworking union organizers who trekked to small Southern and Midwestern towns.
This time, Steve Yokich himself is on the scene, showing his face and putting his name on letters to Mercedes' workers.
In April, Yokich exercised his board prerogative and requested a tour of the nonunion Alabama operation. He was complimentary and gracious during the visit. But an interview conducted earlier with Bloomberg News Service appeared nationwide the same day, quoting him as criticizing Mercedes for resisting the union.
A month later, Yokich complained to senior officials on the Chrysler side of the DaimlerChrysler family in Auburn Hills, Mich., about the lack of support for the union drive. Yokich asked the automaker to agree to a so-called 'card-check.'
That procedure would require Alabama organizers only to collect signed cards of support from 51 percent of eligible workers rather than holding an official secret-ballot election. Under a card-check, the UAW's odds of organizing the workers would rise dramatically.
But executives in Michigan refused to intercede. Even as they prepared to begin this summer's labor contract talks with the union, DaimlerChrysler's senior management announced they would remain neutral - not resisting the UAW, but not helping it, either.
'They're using us,' says Mercedes maintenance worker Ollie Cox, referring to the union. 'We're probably just a bargaining chip in their big contract talks.'
Cox and others have created an off-site employee group to resist the union efforts. The group distributes red and white stickers featuring the universal 'no' symbol over the word 'union.'
A stroll through the factory reveals that workers are wearing the stickers on their sleeves as they assemble the Mercedes M-class sport-utilities.
But anti-union employees say DaimlerChrysler's neutrality policy limits them as much as it challenges UAW organizers. The group's members say they dare not pass out leaflets on company property for fear of bringing complaints and charges of collusion onto company management.
They say they are afraid to discuss union issues at work for the same reason. At a recent standing-room-only anti-union meeting held at a hotel 10 miles from the factory, one Mercedes worker asked why the group's materials don't 'show our pride' by featuring the Mercedes star. Cox shook his head.
'That might look like the company officially had something to do with it,' he answered.
'Then how come the union can put the star on their stuff?' someone else asked.
'Well, they can do a lot of things we can't,' Cox said.
The UAW recruitment office in Vance will not comment publicly on the organizing drive. It refers inquiries to Bob King, the union's vice president of organizing in Detroit. Repeated efforts to reach him last week were unsuccessful. Mercedes itself no longer comments on the UAW campaign.
Even with the company's pledge of neutrality, the UAW faces another tough recruitment drive, labor expert Steve Babson believes. Alabama - and the South in general - has little history of welcoming unions.
'It certainly helps that Yokich is on the supervisory board, but this is hardly a neutral environment,' said Babson, labor program specialist with Wayne State University's Labor Studies Center in Detroit.
'Mercedes is in a region where there is little support for unions, where union membership is lower than the rest of the nation, and where local officials, local businesses and even governments tend to be anti-union.'
Local businesses are donating most of the money that pays for the anti-union group's postage and printed materials, Cox said.
Employees who attend the weekly meeting toss dollar bills onto the table as they leave. It added up to $41 at one meeting and $125 at another. That kitty might pay for a new batch of stickers, but probably not for the big highway billboard the group plans to raise to counter Steve Yokich's.
In the industrial North, unions commonly enlist community support in their activities. In Vance, it is the workers' anti-union group that counts on community support.
Observes Babson: 'Yokich's position on the board may give the UAW an opportunity to get in at Mercedes, but it still has its work cut out for it.'