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Mercedes workers vote no to union. UAW says they were illegally intimidated

More than 5,000 workers assemble luxury SUVs and EV batteries for Mercedes-Benz in Alabama.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
More than 5,000 workers assemble luxury SUVs and EV batteries for Mercedes-Benz in Alabama.

It's a no. Autoworkers at Mercedes-Benz near Tuscaloosa have rejected joining the United Auto Workers union, by a vote of 2,642 to 2,045.

The results are a big setback for the UAW, which had enjoyed a string of victories in recent months, starting with the historic strikes last fall against the Big Three carmakers Ford, GM and Stellantis that resulted in big wage gains and benefits for workers.

Just a month ago, Volkswagen workers in Tennessee voted nearly 3-to-1 in favor of joiningthe UAW, upending longstanding assumptions about the South.

But the outcome in Alabama, where more than 5,000 workers build luxury SUVs, was never guaranteed. For decades, pro-union workers inside the plant could never gather enough support to call for a union election. This latest attempt, launched last fall, was by far their best shot.

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The union loss at Mercedes comes as a relief to Alabama's political leadership, who framed the union vote as a threat to the state's economic success.

"The workers... have spoken clearly!" said Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in a statement released Friday afternoon. "Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW. We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election."

UAW says Mercedes violated U.S. labor law by intimidating and harrassing workers

The UAW is unlikely to move on without a fight. Even before this week, the union had filed unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes, alleging the company violated U.S. labor law by intimidating workers in the run-up to the election.

Under a new standard adopted by the National Labor Relations Board last year, Mercedes could be ordered to bargain with the UAW if the company is found to have illegally interfered in the union election.

Posters cover the walls of the UAW office in Coaling, Ala., that served as headquarters for the union organizing campaign at Mercedes.
Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom
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Gulf States Newsroom
Posters cover the walls of the UAW office in Coaling, Ala., that served as headquarters for the union organizing campaign at Mercedes.

The UAW has also filed charges against Mercedes in Germany under a new law aimed at holding companies accountable for human rights violations in their global supply chains.

"This company engaged in egregious, illegal behavior," said UAW President Shawn Fain after the ballot count. "The federal government and the German government are currently investigating Mercedes for the intimidation and harassment that they inflicted on their own workers, and we intend to follow that process through."

Mercedes workers were energized after UAW's big wins against the Big 3 automakers

The union campaign at Mercedes kicked off last fall, shortly after autoworkers at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, formerly Chrysler, ratified record contracts to end their six-week strike. Impressed with the UAW's hard-charging negotiating tactics, Mercedes workers began to sign union authorization cards in droves, reaching what the UAW described as "a supermajority" by early April.

The workers called for higher wages and lower health care costs, aware that Big 3 autoworkers pay nothing in health care premiums thanks to their UAW contract. Mercedes workers also hoped having a union could help tame their unpredictable schedules.

Mercedes tried hard to dissuade workers from voting for the union

Still, it's one thing to sign an electronic card expressing support for a union drive. It's quite another to drop an official vote into a ballot box.

Mercedes used the intervening time to try to dissuade workers from voting for the union, something that Volkswagen notably did not do in the run-up to its union election in Tennessee last month.

For months, Mercedes started shifts by showing videos that warned about the failures of unions and the lack of say workers have in how their union dues are spent. Two weeks before the election, the company announced a CEO change in Alabama and urged workers to give the new leadership a chance.

As the election drew close, workers say they also got text messages on their phones and were pulled into small group meetings with lawyers from an outside consulting group.

"The entire message in those meetings is Vote no, vote no, vote no. We don't think you need to do this. This is not what you want," said David Johnston, who works at the Mercedes battery plant.

Rob Lett, who's worked in both the assembly and battery plants at Mercedes, voted yes to joining the UAW but says some workers apprehensive about the union could have been affected by the company's anti-union messaging.
Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom
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Gulf States Newsroom
Rob Lett, who's worked in both the assembly and battery plants at Mercedes, voted yes to joining the UAW but says some workers apprehensive about the union could have been affected by the company's anti-union messaging.

Rob Lett, a union supporter who worked in assembly for seven years before moving to the the battery plant, says Mercedes' messaging likely did reach people who were apprehensive about the union.

"I feel like they were trying to jump on that fear and manipulate them," he said, although he'd hoped it wasn't enough to make a difference.

In a statement sent out after the ballots were tallied, Mercedes said its goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible employee 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," the statement read, adding that the company looked forward to continuing to work directly with its employees.

Politicians joined in the fray

Alabama politicians, including Gov. Ivey and Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, took a strident tone, characterizing the UAW as an outside force hellbent on threatening Alabama's economic success. The state's Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair pointed to recent layoffs at the Big 3 automakers as proof that a lucrative union contract could backfire on Mercedes workers.

"Not only could there be layoffs, there could be investment made in other plants in other parts of the country or in other countries," McNair warned on Alabama Public Television's Capitol Journal.

A new paper from the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., took a skeptical view of that claim.

Researchers noted that the Alabama plant has been the sole producer of one kind of large luxury SUVs for Mercedes for nearly two decades. Its vehicles are sold not just in North America but exported globally. Its presence in the state has given rise to a robust supply chain network.

"Given this vantage position, any plant closure or relocation options for this plant seem remote given current circumstances and market conditions," the authors wrote.

With the union election over at Mercedes, it's unclear who might be next.

The UAW says at least 30% of workers at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala., and a Toyota plant in Troy, Mo., have signed union cards, enough to petition federal labor officials for a union election. But the UAW has been waiting to amass well over a majority of support at a plant before taking that next step.

Speaking in Alabama on Friday, Fain characterized the unionizing efforts as a David versus Goliath fight.

"Sometimes Goliath wins the battle, but ultimately David will win the war. These workers will win their fair share," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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