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Alabama Mercedes Employees Overwhelmingly Vote Against Joining Union, Slowing UAW Effort in South
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By Associated Press
Published 1 month ago on
May 17, 2024

Workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories vote against joining the United Auto Workers union, marking a setback in the union's efforts to organize plants in the South. (AP/Kim Chandler)

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Workers at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers on Friday, a setback in the union’s drive to organize plants in the historically nonunion South.

The workers voted 56% against the union, according to tallies released by the National Labor Relations Board, which ran the election.

The NLRB’s final tally showed a vote of 2,642 to 2,045 workers against the union. A total of 5,075 voters were eligible to vote at an auto assembly plant and a battery factory in and near Vance, Alabama, not far from Tuscaloosa, the board said. Nearly 93% of workers eligible to vote cast ballots.

The NLRB said both sides have five business days to file objections to the election. The union must wait a year before seeking another vote.

Union Response

UAW President Shawn Fain told workers the results were not what the union had hoped for, but he said the UAW eventually will prevail. “These courageous workers reached out to us because they want justice,” he said.

He likened the union organizing effort to the fight between David and Goliath: Sometimes Goliath wins a battle, “but ultimately, David will win the war,” he said. “These workers will win their fair share.”

Fain said whether the union challenges the election results will be up to UAW lawyers. The union already has filed unfair labor practice complaints against the company alleging that management and anti-union consultants tried to intimidate workers. The company has denied the allegations.

“Obviously we’re following through on complaints, both here and in Germany” where Mercedes is headquartered, Fain said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who has campaigned against the union, wrote in a post that auto manufacturing is one of the state’s crown jewel industries, and the state is committed to keeping it that way.

“Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW,” she wrote. “We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election.”

Worker Reactions

Worker Melissa Howell, who opposed joining the union, said she and other employees realized that the UAW was making lofty promises that it couldn’t put in writing, including pay of $40 per hour, pensions and better benefits.

“They kept repeating over and over, ‘You’re not going to lose anything. We’re going to start with what you have right now,’” Howell said. “That’s when we really started letting people know, ‘Hey, hold up. It’s all negotiable.'”

But Rick Garner, 60, who works in quality control at the Mercedes assembly plant and supported joining the union, said workers were shown an anti-union video every day ahead of the vote, while union opponents targeted employees who they thought could be persuaded to vote no.

“I’m disappointed in the people that flipped and believed the persuaders,” Garner said.

Impact on UAW’s Efforts

The loss slows the UAW’s effort to organize 150,000 workers at more than a dozen nonunion auto factories largely in the South.

The voting at the two Mercedes factories comes a month after the UAW scored a breakthrough victory at Volkswagen’s assembly factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In that election, VW workers voted overwhelmingly to join the UAW, drawn by the prospect of substantially higher wages and other benefits.

The UAW had little success before then recruiting at nonunion auto plants in the South, where workers have been much less drawn to organized labor than in the traditional union strongholds of Michigan and other industrial Midwest states.

A victory at the Mercedes plants would have represented a huge plum for the union, which has long struggled to overcome the enticements that Southern states have bestowed on foreign automakers, including tax breaks, lower labor costs and a nonunion workforce.

Ivey and other Southern governors warned that voting for union membership could, over time, cost workers their jobs because of the higher costs that the auto companies would have to bear.

Yet the UAW was campaigning from a stronger position than in the past. Besides its victory in Chattanooga, it achieved generous new contracts last fall after striking against Detroit Big 3 automakers: General Motors, Stellantis and Ford. Workers there gained 33% pay raises in contracts that will expire in 2028.

Top-scale production workers at GM, who now earn about $36 an hour, will make nearly $43 an hour by the end of their contract, plus annual profit-sharing checks. Mercedes has increased top production worker pay to $34 an hour, a move that some workers say was intended to fend off the UAW.

Shortly after workers ratified the Detroit contract, Fain announced a drive to organize about 150,000 workers at more than a dozen nonunion plants, mostly run by foreign-based automakers with plants in Southern states. In addition, Tesla’s U.S. factories, which are nonunion, are in the UAW’s sights.

It turns out that the union had a tougher time in Alabama than in Tennessee, where the UAW narrowly lost two previous votes and was familiar with workers at the factory. The UAW has accused Mercedes of using management and anti-union consultants to try to intimidate workers.

In a statement Friday, Mercedes said it looks forward to “continuing to work directly with our team members so they can build superior vehicles for the world.”

The company said its focus is on providing a safe and supportive work environment.

In an interview before the votes were tallied, Marick Masters, a business professor emeritus at Wayne State University in Detroit, said a loss would be a setback for the union but suggested it would not deal a fatal blow to its membership drive. The union will have to analyze why it couldn’t garner more than 50% of the vote, given its statement that a “supermajority” of workers signed cards authorizing an election, Masters said. The UAW wouldn’t say what percentage or how many workers signed up.

The loss could lead workers at other nonunion plants to wonder why Mercedes employees voted against the union. But Masters said he doesn’t think it will slow down the union.

The union has said it will continue organizing efforts at nonunion plants run by Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Toyota and Honda.

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