June 20, 2024

After months of organizing efforts, the United Auto Workers suffered the first loss of its multi-million dollar campaign to organize car plants around the United States.

Of the more than 5,000 workers at Mercedes-Benz’s factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, just 2,045 voted in favor of joining the UAW, the National Labor Relations Board said Friday after a week of voting. The NLRB said 2,642 workers voted against union representation. Fifty-one ballots were challenged and were not counted, while five additional ballots were voided.

As a result, workers at the factory — who make the GLE, GLE Coupé, GLS Maybach, the all-electric EQS SUV, and the EQE SUV — will not be represented by the UAW.

“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,” Mercedes said in a statement Friday.

The UAW, which launched an unprecedented nationwide organizing push in November after securing record contracts from the big automakers in Detroit, has been careful about its latest campaigns. It has, so far, focused its efforts on facilities where organizers had previously won some support and needed a few additional nudges to tip the scales in its favor.

Mercedes workers first went to the polls on Monday to vote on whether to join the UAW. The voting period ended Thursday morning. The UAW and Mercedes have five business days to file objections to the election before it is certified.

“These courageous workers reached out to us because they want justice; they lead this fight and that’s what this is all about,” UAW President Shawn Fain told reporters Friday.

“Justice isn’t just about one vote or one campaign; it’s about getting a voice and getting your fair share,” he added, before touting recent pay raises Mercedes gave workers as the “UAW bump.”

A bitter contest

The election followed months of conflict between workers, union organizers, and management officials in Alabama.

The UAW alleged that Mercedes ran an “aggressive anti-union” campaign to stifle organizing efforts. The union in March filed a federal complaint against the German automaker, alleging that the company was retaliating against workers for being pro-union.

Some pro-union workers described other UAW supporters being terminated for having their cell phones out. Al Ezell, who has stage 4 lung cancer and works at the battery plant, said last month that he was disciplined for having his phone on the factory floor, despite having permission to check it.

The UAW also filed charges against Mercedes-Benz Group in German court under the Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains, which sets supply chain standards for firms based in Germany. It was the first time a U.S.-based union filed charges under the law, which went into effect last year. Mercedes could face “billions in penalties,” according to the UAW.

On Thursday, just before polls closed, the UAW announced that German authorities had begun investigating Mercedes over the union’s charges.

Mercedes has denied the claims, saying in a statement that “it has not interfered with or retaliated against any Team Member in their right to pursue union representation.” The company has also said it will fully cooperate with authorities.

Just weeks before the election, Mercedes Benz U.S. International replaced CEO Michael Goebel with Federico Kochlowski, who was most recently vice president of operations at Mercedes’ U.S. branch. The Huffington Post reports that in a letter to workers this week, Kochlowski wrote that he is a “person of my word,” adding that “I hope you’ll give me a chance to do what I came here to do.”

The letter was condemned by IndustriALL, which represents more than 50 million workers across 140 countries. The global union federation said Thursday that “workers at Mercedes’ plant in Alabama are facing union busting, with the employer spreading disinformation,” instead of a “free and fair process.”

On Monday, as voting kicked off, Mercedes texted its employees a link to a video of Tuscaloosa city councilor and reverend Matthew Wilson suggesting employees vote against unionizing.

Alabama state House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen has called the UAW a “multi-level marketing scheme.” Gov. Kay Ivey signed a joint-statement with six other governors criticizing the union and, on Friday, said “Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW.”

Fain on Friday said “shame on them,” referring to the politicians that criticized the UAW, adding that they picked the side of companies and “corporate greed” over supporting workers.

An unprecedented effort

The UAW’s efforts in Mercedes marked its second attempt — in this campaign — to organize a plant in the American South, which is home to many “right to work” states and has been largely opposed to organized labor for decades.

Automakers in the region picked plants in rural areas, where unions aren’t traditionally popular, screened hires to exclude prospective employees who would be interested in joining a union, and hired temporary workers as a “buffer” if layoffs were necessary, according to Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University who wrote “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-owned Vehicle Plants.”

Automakers also put up television monitors throughout the plants displaying anti-union messaging and donated to local churches, charities, and politicians important to the community.

Volkswagen last month became the the first conquered carmaker in the UAW’s push to organize all 14 auto companies with nonunion plants in the U.S. Workers at the company’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had voted down previous organizing pushes. But the UAW was confident it had built up enough support at the plant to make it a successful first push.

With workers at Mercedes voting against joining the UAW, the union has likely lost much of the momentum it built in recent months. It’s also the first major loss for Fain, who took office in March 2023.

The union has dedicated $40 million to organize workers at plants operated by Nissan, Hyundai Motor, Subaru, and Tesla. More than 10,000 workers have signed union cards in recent months, according to a UAW tally.

In the wake of a disappointing wrap to the UAW’s Tuscaloosa campaign, the union will likely be more cautious about filing for its next election. Fain on Friday told reporters that “workers make the decision” about filing for additional elections in Alabama and that the UAW plans to “keep on fighting” for workers.

The UAW is expected to pursue organizing at Toyota Motor’s engine plant in Missouri and hydrogen plant in Alabama. More than 30% of the workers at the Troy, Missouri, plant have already signed union cards.

The union may also look to Hyundai Motor Co.’s plant in Montgomery, Alabama, where it has won over more than 30% of workers. In December, the UAW filed unfair labor practice charges against Hyundai; the union has also filed charges against Honda Motor Co. and Volkswagen.

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