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UAW Gaining Traction as Mercedes’ Alabama Workers Set to File for Union Vote

by | April 3, 2024

In what could be a critical development for the United Auto Workers Union, employees at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Alabama are expected to file the paperwork needed to set up a vote aimed at organizing the factory. Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee made a similar move last month.

Mercedes-Benz Plant Vance Alabama

The Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama.

The drive by the United Auto Workers Union to organize employees at dozens of foreign-owned “transplant” factories across the U.S. appears to be gaining momentum.

Hourly employees at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Vance, Alabama are expected to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board as early as this week seeking a vote on whether to join the UAW, according to a Wednesday report by Reuters.

Gaining momentum

If that happens it would mark the second non-union auto assembly plant where workers are seeking to be organized by the UAW in just a month. Employees at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee filed their own petition with the NLRB last month. Voting is expected to be completed by April 19.

While the union currently represents Detroit-based automakers, General Motors and Ford, as well as the U.S. operations of Euro-American Stellantis, it has not been able to crack into any of the so-called transplants. There currently are 12 foreign-owned automakers operating in the United States. The UAW also is targeting both the California and Texas plants run by Tesla.

VW union image 3

A rally outside the VW plant in Chattanooga, TN.

Union president Shawn Fain has made organizing those facilities a high priority and is hoping to win support after reaching what he has described as “historic” settlements with the Detroit automakers last autumn.

“When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six,” Fain promised after the last of the Detroit automakers settled with the union, ending a series of strikes.

More Union News

A history of failure

Fain talks Stellantis deal

UAW Pres. Shawn Fain wants to organize all the foreign-owned auto plants, as well as Tesla.

Since Honda, the first of the transplants, set up operations in the country four decades ago, the union has failed to gain representation rights with two exceptions. It briefly gained a foothold at a joint venture operated by the old Chrysler Corp. and Mitsubishi in Illinois. But that ended when the two companies abandoned the facility. It is now run without a union by start-up Rivian.

The same thing happened at an old GM plant in Fremont, California which became a joint venture with Toyota. GM abandoned the plant during its 2010 bankruptcy and Toyota subsequently sold the facility to Tesla which has actively resisted UAW organizing efforts.

Winning over transplant workers is seen as critical to the UAW’s long-term survival. Once one of the largest and most powerful labor group in America, it collected dues from 1.7 million American autoworkers at its peak in the mid-1970s. But that began to decline as the first foreign-owned plans set up shop and brands like Toyota, Honda and Nissan began earing away at the market shares of the domestic brands.

Last year, the UAW was down to about 370,000 dues-paying members – and that figure included workers in a number of new industries, including government and health care.

Prior organizing votes at Nissan, Honda and VW ended unsuccessfully for the union.

Targeting Mercedes

Mercedes-Benz Plant Workers Vance Alabama

Workers at the Mercedes plant in Alabama assemble a new EV.

The union has launched organization drives at a number of the transplants and hopes to target them all eventually. But it sees some as especially ready to unionize. The announcement at the VW plant took few by surprise – but demonstrates the challenges the union still faces. Workers in Chattanooga have so far twice voted down the UAW, though the margin was extremely tight in the last election.

Many observers expect to see workers eventually call for a vote at Tesla’s Fremont plant where there has been significant strife between labor and management, as well as a high rate of worker injuries.

But Mercedes seems ready to go next, at least according to Reuters which quoted “three people familiar with the matter” who indicate a petition could be submitted to the NLRB “as soon as this week.” When an actual vote could take place is uncertain, however.

What next?

UAW President Fain and regional director Tim Smith confirmed they had been in Alabama meeting with workers supporting the organizing drive two weeks ago. “We’re proud of them and they’re going to win also,” Smith said this past Tuesday.

Mercedes-Benz EQE SUV - at Vance

A finished Mercedes-Benz EQE SUV at the Vance plant.

Insiders have indicated a majority of the roughly 6,000 workers in Vance have signed cards supporting a union. But they face potential pushback from both the company and state and local government officials – as was the case prior to the two votes at the VW plant in Chattanooga.

Sources have told Headlight.News that UAW leaders have decided not to file petitions with NLRB unless and until they get a super-majority of worker signatures, leaving slack for those workers who may subsequently be swayed against organizing.

Mercedes pushes back

The Alabama plant would be a major trophy for the UAW. It’s an important plant for Mercedes, producing a variety of products including the midsize GLE crossover and flagship GLS Maybach mode, as well as some of the automaker’s new EVs.

A Mercedes spokesperson told Reuters it has “a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits” and that it preferred not to have to work through a union. “Following the UAW’s nationwide campaign to increase its membership, (Mercedes) wants to ensure its team members make an informed decision,” the spokesperson added.

Federal labor law limits the steps a company can take to impact a union organizing effort and the UAW has filed several unfair labor complaints against Mercedes with the NLRB.


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