Mercedes plant in Alabama may be domino that triggers one of the most important strategies for the United Auto Workers union's negotiations with DaimlerChrysler AG this summer doesn't have anything to do with wage increases or pension plans. It likely won't even see any ink when the final deals are penned.

Instead, it may be a simple, private agreement neither side discusses in public. That's because one of the keys for the UAW in this year's contract talks is to convince DC to remain neutral during the union's organizing efforts at the Mercedes assembly plant in Vance, AL. And not just because the facility now is affiliated with the former Chrysler Corp., a member of the traditional and unionized U.S. Big Three. Vance represents what could be the first domino in a row of non-union transplant facilities for the UAW, stretching from Sweet Home Alabama all the way to the Buckeye State.

Knock one down, the rest fall in line. Or so the theory goes. "I don't think it's quite that simple. But at the same time (if Vance is organized), that would have a big effect. Once you have a big victory, especially in the auto industry - where they've been so unsuccessful in recent years - it could really rally the troops," says John Delaney, professor of management at the University of Iowa.

The UAW already is on a roll. In 1998, it added more members than it lost for the first time since 1989. A 20-year slump appears to be coming to a close. The union's organizing efforts have become more active - and successful - since last year when it added a fifth vice president, Bob King, solely in charge of increasing UAW membership.

But most of the UAW's new rank-and-file are not auto workers, its core constituency. With the industry downsizing, the UAW needs more than piecemeal victories. It has to look at non-union plants run by BMW Mfg. Corp., Toyota Motor Mfg. U.S.A. Inc., Honda of America Mfg. Inc., Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. and Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. And now is the time. "The fact DaimlerChrysler merged opened up a new twist," explains Nick Lobaccaro, a New York-based auto analyst for Lehman Brothers.

Including DC's facility in Vance, there are eight major transplant facilities with a combined workforce of around 25,000. The Mercedes plant is a key strategic location. If Vance is organized, Honda's forthcoming plant in Alabama could be vulnerable. That, in turn, could make the automaker's facilities in Marysville and East Liberty, OH, susceptible, as well.

"Letting one little lousy assembly plant organize (DC) could get Honda and Toyota into the union's jaws," says Sean McAlinden, an automotive labor economist at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

But it won't be easy. The UAW has tried several times to organize transplant facilities and failed. That's because most of the plants are located in rural communities with no union history. "Solidarity House is just like this parade thing up on the Detroit River full of fat cats with cigars. Southerners really do believe that," says Mr. McAlinden.

Hourly applicants are interviewed extensively and often have no manufacturing experience. Workers are offered wages usually twice the region's going rate. Management emphasizes individualism, a popular message with the younger workers that transplants hire. The automakers also take a high-profile position locally, sponsoring community activities even before facilities are built.

And if pro-union sentiments begin to surface, there is always a very vocal counterbalance. "When (workers) start to come to us, the company starts to say, 'You're being a traitor to us. We are the guys that brought these jobs here. We might have to move,'" UAW President Stephen P. Yokich tells WAW.

The anti-UAW defenses are daunting. That's why the union wagons are circling Vance; should DC ensure neutrality, it will be the union's best shot to date at what it considers an even playing field.

And union activity in Vance only will increase management's awareness elsewhere. "The other auto companies would stiffen their resistance a great deal," says Gary Chaison, an industrial professor at Clark University in Worchester, MA.

That's assuming UAW representation interests enough workers from a generation unfamiliar with labor's epic battles to threaten transplants. "I don't think they can expect to sell people on tradition and history, as they have in the past. I think they have to sell them on protection," Mr. Chaison points out.

That's missing at transplants, observers say. While the Mercedes and BMW assembly plants are relatively new, some of the Honda, Toyota and Nissan facilities have been operating for years. Manual labor is beginning to take its toll on workers. What paled in comparison to the high wages offered 10 years ago, now is sorely missed. "Their pension is inadequate. They are burning out. That's what happens at transplants. They have back problems, carpal tunnel. They have foremen who have hated them for years," says Mr. McAlinden.

Even then, unions aren't always welcomed by a majority of workers, who often view them as another tax on their wages. The Teamsters' recent attempt to organize Honda's Ohio plants is only the latest union effort to stall. And Mr. Yokich says so far Mercedes has been anything but neutral down in Alabama.

But despite the numerous labor defeats at the hands of the transplants, the UAW isn't ready to raise the white flag.

"I think that in the near future, you will see more transplants come under the banner of the UAW," predicts Mr. Yokich.

with Said Deep and Dave Zoia