Glenn Spencer Glenn Spencer
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


April 26, 2024


On April 3, the United Auto Workers (UAW) formally filed charges against Mercedes Benz under Germany’s new law regarding global supply chain practices. These charges come just weeks before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will hold an election at Mercedes’ manufacturing plant in Vance, Alabama to determine if the UAW will represent the company’s workers. 

It’s common practice for unions to file unfair labor practice charges against companies they are seeking to unionize. Part of the reason is that if they lose an election, they can appeal the result with the NRLB and push to overturn their loss.

In this case, however, the UAW has chosen to file a complaint with a foreign government under a law that can impose substantial financial penalties. These can amount to 8 million euros or 2% of global turnover, which in the case of Mercedes would mean, in the words of the UAW, “billions in penalties, including significant fines and bans on government contracts.” Should such penalties be issued, that would mean a lot less money to pay workers or provide benefits or make new job-creating investments.

DID YOU KNOW? The majority of the UAW’s members no longer build cars

It's odd that a union claiming to improve workers’ lives would threaten their employer with job-killing financial penalties before a representation election has even been held. But adding insult to injury is that the charges are based on a rather spurious legal theory.

Germany’s new supply chain law requires companies to adhere to 11 internationally recognized human rights conventions and to maintain a supply chain free of violations of these conventions. Some of these are straightforward, like prohibitions on slavery, child labor, and withholding of wages. Others are more nuanced, such as free association, meaning the ability to join unions.

Free association is guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act, to which the Mercedes plant in Vance is subject. That’s why an election will be held in May: to determine if workers want to associate with the UAW. So, it’s hard to see how Mercedes is denying free association. 

What the UAW is relying on is a twisted interpretation of free association that equates any employer opposition to unions as illegal, even providing workers with information so that they can make an informed choice. Such a theory wouldn’t stand much of a chance in a U.S. Court. But in Germany? That’s less clear.

This creates an unfortunate situation. The UAW wants to represent workers at the Mercedes plant in Vance (along with the dues revenue that comes with it) but doesn’t want them to have balanced information to make an informed choice. All the while, it wants to hit the company with billions in penalties that couldn’t be used for wage increases or benefits. As a German might say, “Das ist unglaublich.”

About the authors

Glenn Spencer

Glenn Spencer

Spencer oversees the Chamber’s work on immigration, retirement security, traditional labor relations, human trafficking, wage hour and worker safety issues, EEOC matters, and state labor and employment law.

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