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Mercedes Workers Next to Vote on UAW – But “Alabama is Not Michigan”

by | May 14, 2024

After winning a historic vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga last month, the United Auto Workers Union takes aim at a repeat victory as workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa cast their ballots. But the UAW faces strong local opposition from, among others, Gov. Kay Ivey who declared “Alabama is not Michigan,” as she signed a bill to discourage the state’s workers from unionizing.

Mercedes-Benz Plant Workers Vance Alabama

Workers at the Mercedes plant in Alabama assemble a new EV. The plant is expected to be the second to have a vote on the UAW organizing drive.

The 5,200 hourly workers at the Mercedes-Benz assembly line and nearby battery plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are now voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers Union. The balloting follows a watershed victory by the union last month at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennesse which marked the first time the UAW was able to win representation rights at one of the many “transplant” automotive facilities that have popped up across the traditionally non-union South.

A victory in Alabama would be seen as a strong indication that the UAW has finally ended a four-decade dry spell that saw its membership tumble by roughly 90% as foreign-owned manufacturers such as VW, Mercedes, Toyota and Hyundai captured a growing share of the American automotive market.

The organizing drive is a key goal of union President Sean Fein and follows the UAW’s big wins during negotiations with Detroit’s Big Three automakers last autumn. But observers warn that a second win is far from certain. Despite having a supermajority of workers signing cards calling for the vote, opponents have mounted a strong campaign meant to keep the UAW out.

Alabama values

VW plant sign

Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voted 73% in favor of joining the UAW.

We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state,” Gov. Kay Ivey declared when she signed into law SB321.

Not coincidentally marking the first day of the Mercedes vote, the measure is designed to discourage labor drives. It will withhold economic incentives offered by the state to lure in a company if it voluntarily recognizes a union of if a secret ballot isn’t used during an election. The measure, however, has no impact on Mercedes which has been operating its assembly plant there for several decades.

Still, Mercedes has been “far stronger in opposing the effort” to organize its Alabama factories than was Volkswagen in Tennessee, reported on Monday.

Officially, the company has said it was pleased “to ensure every Team Member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice.” But a recording secretly made by the plant’s CEO caught him saying he did not believe “the UAW can help us to be better.” Michael Goebel was removed by Mercedes after the recording was made public.

Playing it safe

UAW Pres. Shawn Fain speaks REL

UAW President Shawn Fain Has made organizing the “transplants” a top priority.

Under rules set by the National Labor Relations Board, a union can call for an organizing vote once 30% of a plant’s workers sign cards supporting a drive. Two years ago, Mercedes worker Jacob Ryan told Reuters he and other pro-union employees could barely get 20% to sign.

Previous votes at Honda and Nissan failed, union leaders have said, because they didn’t get enough early support. This time around, however, the union has set a minimum target of getting 70% of a plant’s workers to sign before asking the NLRB to schedule an election. That leaves room for defections should some workers get cold feet.

A variety of factors appear to be working in favor of the UAW this time, according to experts such as Marick Masters, a labor professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University. That includes high inflation, the big payouts to industry CEOs – and the big payout workers won last Autumn under the new contracts signed by General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

“That is the biggest thing that we’re using to push because we can show how much the union can win now,” Ryan told the wire service, adding that he believes the union will address issues like pay, hours and benefits that Mercedes hasn’t.

More UAW News

What next?

Fain at Stellantis SHAP

The settlement of the UAW strikes in Detroit – which delivered major gains in pay and benefits – has helped the organizing drive.

The earlier resistance to the UAW’s organizing drive was in line with Alabama’s historical resistance to unions. The state had 156,000 workers represented by organized labor in 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or 7.5% of its workforce. That’s up from a historic low of 5.9% in 2021, suggesting growing interest, but the current number is still below the national average of 10%.

Based on the number of signature cards it received, the UAW is confident it can win at Mercedes. And, by scheduling the vote to follow the win at Volkswagen, it is clearly looking to build momentum. The union has not said what company and plant – or plants – it might target next. But, in breaking from past tradition, it is looking to go after as many transplants as possible.

It’s also going after some of the domestically owned start-ups, like Tesla. One source, speaking on background, said the extensive job cuts at the EV maker in recent weeks could radicalize the work force. Adding to the frustration on the plant floor was the way Tesla handled the workforce reduction. Many employees only discovered they’d been laid off when they came to work and found their key cards no longer worked.

A new approach

After failing to win prior organizing efforts – among other things, losing two earlier votes at VW – the UAW appears to have learned an important lesson. It echoes the philosophy of the late Tip O’Neill, the long-time Democratic Speaker of the House: all elections are local.

“The UAW did a good job of organizing from a grass roots level, rather than relying on organizers helicoptered in” from union headquarters in Detroit, as it typically did in the past, said Marick Masters, a labor history professor at Wayne State University. It’s an approach that should be more effective at other plants, said the Detroit-based scholar, “but it doesn’t guarantee an easy win at other plants.”

Still, another win in Alabama should add to the union’s momentum.

1 Comment

  1. I can’t imagine why an hourly worker at an automobile plant would not want a union.


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