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UAW Dealt Crushing Defeat in Alabama, Workers Reject Union

by | May 17, 2024

The United Auto Workers lost its bid to bring workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama into the union. The setback comes just weeks after an overwhelming victory at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and raises questions about what the UAW might do next, its drive to organize foreign-owned transplants a key goal of union President Shawn Fain.

In an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, 56% of the workers at the Mercedes assembly plant in Vance and a nearby battery plant plant voted against representation by the UAW, just 44% , voting in favor, according to the unofficial count. The defeat followed a concerted campaign against the union by both the company and the conservative Alabama political establishment led by the Governor Kay Ivey. 

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The final tally was 2,045 for the union and 2,642 against, according to the National Labor Relations Board. 

The results are being seen as a win for Alabama’s political leadership – which portrayed the UAW as an “outside” force from Detroit that would disrupt the growth of the state’s non-union auto industry. It’s a major force in terms of the export of new, U.S.-made vehicles. Ivey and other Alabama political figures also portrayed the UAW as a threat to future investment in the state’s economy. 

UAW President Fain described workers who stood up for the union as “courageous, adding that “They want justice. They lead us, they lead this fight. And that’s what this is all about,

“A setback”

He described the loss as a “setback,” but refused to say the union had been defeated in its bid to gain representation rights at the dozens of foreign-owned auto plants that have popped up across the U.S. over the past four decades, most in states with anti-union histories.

“Justice isn’t just about one vote or one campaign. It’s about getting a voice and getting your fair share,” Fain said.

Over the last 40 years, Southern states used  massive public subsidies and the promise of a union-free environment, which has separated the region from the more heavily unionized Midwest.  Alabama has spent $1.6 billion to woo Mercedes, along with Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda. This foreign investment has created thousands of Alabama jobs — but with weak worker protections, the state remains one of the nation’s poorest. 

Record profits are leaving workers behind

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.

While these companies have enjoyed rising corporate profits, they have left workers behind, according to UAW President Shawn Fain, who made the case workers at Mercedes-Benz had nothing to lose and everything to gain by seeking union representation.  

The UAW’s defeat at Mercedes-Benz follows on the heels of its successful campaign last month at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The UAW lost twice in Chattanooga before its victorious campaign last month. 

Over the years, the union also lost in organizing campaigns at Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi. The Canton plant could emerge as one of the UAW’s next targets as Fain has promised the UAW planned to step up its efforts to bring Southern workers into the UAW fold. Meanwhile, the UAW also is very likely to challenge the results, charging that Mercedes-Benz local management had brought in anti-union consultants to campaign against the union. 

Mercedes responds

Mercedes-Benz Plant Vance Alabama

The Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama.

Following the vote, Mercedes-Benz issued a statement saying that, “Our goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible Team Member had the opportunity to participate in a fair election. We thank all Team Members who asked questions, engaged in discussions, and ultimately, made their voices heard on this important issue.

“We look forward to continuing to work directly with our Team Members to ensure MBUSI is not only their employer of choice, but a place they would recommend to friends and family,” the company statement said.

But it’s unclear if the UAW will let the vote in Vance stand without a fight. Even before balloting began it raised concerns about potential interference in violation of federal labor laws.

Automaker faces investigation

The German government is officially investigating Mercedes-Benz Group AG for the company’s illegal anti-union conduct at the Mercedez-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama. Germany’s Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control announced the formal investigation this week, the UAW noted in an e-mailed statement.  

“Autoworkers in Alabama should have the same rights and be treated with the same respect as autoworkers in Germany,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, who has worked at the plant since 1999. “My coworkers and I are grateful to the German government for taking our testimonies and the evidence we have provided seriously and taking the first steps to hold the lawless, reckless Mercedes managers in Alabama accountable for their action.”  

The UAW filed charges against Mercedes-Benz Group AG in early April for violating Germany’s new law on global supply chain practices. Mercedes-Benz’s aggressive anti-union campaign against U.S. autoworkers in Alabama is a clear human rights violation under the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains. Mercedes-Benz could face billions in penalties, including significant fines and bans on government contracts.

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What’s next

The UAW has spent decades trying to organize the transplants — with the union now adding several homegrown EV start-ups, including Tesla, Rivian and Lucid. It had previously lost votes at Nissan and Honda and failed to garner enough signatures to call on the NLRB to order elections elsewhere.

The VW win In Chattanooga, the union garnering about two-thirds of the vote, appeared to give significant momentum to the latest drive launched by Fain after the UAW won breakthrough contracts with Stellantis, Ford and General Motors.

The comments by the union leader appear to make it clear the organizing drive isn’t about to end. But the UAW will now need to go back, lick its wounds and see what went wrong at Mercedes. It has already begun drives at a number of plants and has indicated it is gaining worker support in several places, such as the Toyota plant in Missouri. Turmoil at Tesla could make that automaker another vulnerable target. But how soon the drive could stage another vote is far from clear at this point.


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