U.A.W. Effort to Organize Mercedes Workers in Alabama Has High Stakes

More than 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama are voting this week on whether to join the United Automobile Workers union, a decision both supporters and opponents say will have consequences far beyond two factories near Tuscaloosa where the German carmaker churns out luxury sport utility vehicles and batteries for electric cars.

Conservative political leaders have portrayed the union campaign to organize Mercedes workers as an assault by outsiders on the region’s economy and way of life. The vote tally is expected to be released by federal officials on Friday.

Six Southern governors, including Kay Ivey, an Alabama Republican, issued a statement last month criticizing unions as “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by.” Alabama recently passed a law intended to discourage union organizing.

For the union, a win would add to a string of victories in the South, where organized labor has traditionally been weak, and provide momentum to the U.A.W.’s efforts to win over workers at other nonunion automakers like Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and Tesla.

If the U.A.W. loses, it could sharply slow down a campaign by the union’s president, Shawn Fain, to organize auto and battery plants across the country. That effort began after the union last fall reached new contracts with hefty pay raises and other benefits for workers at General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram.

In Alabama, which was a crucible of the civil rights movement, union organizers and supporters cast the Mercedes campaign as part of a decades-long struggle to dismantle an economic system based on exploitation of poor people.

“You are not just fighting for a union,” Bishop William Barber II, an activist and professor at the Yale Divinity School, told a group of organizers, workers and supporters at a Montgomery church on Monday. “You are fighting for justice.”

U.A.W. supporters were optimistic as workers cast their ballots at a Mercedes car factory in Vance, Ala., and at a company-owned factory in nearby Woodstock that assembles battery packs for electric vehicles. The National Labor Relations Board is overseeing the weeklong polling.

“I feel like we have the upper hand right now,” said Sammie Ellis, a union organizer who installs wiring in Mercedes vehicles. He spoke outside a cluttered storefront office down the road from the factory in Vance where activists seated on folding chairs plotted strategy amid piles of placards with slogans like “Mercedes Workers United” and “End the Alabama Discount.”

The Alabama discount is a reference to what union activists say is the state’s main attraction to investors: low wages and compliant workers. “They come to take advantage of how Alabama workers are living in poorer conditions than workers in other parts of the country,” said Joe Cleveland, an official with an International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers local in Anniston, Ala.

Mercedes said in a statement that the company “has a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits.”

Workers who have been at Mercedes for four years can earn $34 an hour, and some employees say they are grateful for the way the company has treated them.

“Mercedes has done a lot for me,” Yolanda Berry, a team leader at the carmaker, said in a video posted on X by Autos Drive America, an industry association that represents Mercedes and other foreign automakers with plants in the United States. Ms. Berry said she had earned less than $14 an hour at a previous job.

The U.A.W. is on a roll in the South after workers at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted in April to be represented by the union. Also that month, the union won significant pay raises for Daimler Truck workers in North Carolina. A victory at Mercedes, which became a separate company from Daimler Truck in 2021, would bolster the union in its next campaign, organizing workers at a Hyundai factory in Montgomery, about 100 miles south of Tuscaloosa.

The South Korean company produces S.U.V.s at the Montgomery plant, including the Tucson and Santa Fe models. Union organizers are also targeting a Honda factory in Lincoln, Ala., where the Japanese company makes S.U.V.s and pickups. But that effort is in its early stages.

On Monday, about 50 activists and Hyundai workers gathered at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery to sing union fight songs and hear from Bishop Barber.

Paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Barber accused Southern political leaders of pitting races against each other. They fear Blacks “and poor whites uniting together and forming a voting bloc that does fundamentally reshape the economic architecture of the country and of the state,” he said.

Opposition to the union from Alabama’s Republican political leadership has been intense. After likening the U.A.W. to “leeches,” Nathaniel Ledbetter, the Republican speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, helped push through a law that denies state funding to companies that voluntarily recognize unions.

The law will not directly affect the Mercedes vote, but it reflected the state of alarm among Republicans with close ties to business interests and their determination to stop union advances. Ms. Ivey signed the bill into law on Monday.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Ivey declined a request for an interview, referring to public statements she has made on the issue.

“Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy,” Ms. Ivey said in a statement she issued with the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, all Republicans.

Mr. Ledbetter’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

A union drive at the Hyundai factory in Alabama in 2016 failed, but activists say things have changed. “The first time around, people were easily intimidated and scared by anti-union tactics,” said Quichelle Liggins, who has worked at the Hyundai factory for 12 years. “This time, we’re ready.”

In an apparent effort to blunt the appeal of a union, Hyundai was one of several automakers that raised worker pay after the U.A.W. won gains for members at Ford, G.M. and Stellantis. The raises at Hyundai, announced in November, amounted to 14 percent over the previous year, according to the company.

But pay is not the only issue for many autoworkers in Alabama. Ms. Liggins, a single mother of two, said she hoped a union would protect people like her from long hours and unpredictable work schedules. “I had a manager tell me my job was more important than my family,” she said.

In a statement, Hyundai said, “We are deeply committed to supporting quality jobs that pay competitive salaries and offer industry-leading benefits.”

The company said that, with rare exceptions, it gave employees 30 days of notice about changes to their schedules. Employees are not required to work more than 10 hours a day, Hyundai said in a statement, and overtime is voluntary except during the introduction of a new model when repair and quality control teams may be required to work longer.

Mercedes, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is used to dealing with unions in its home country, where by law half the members of the company’s supervisory board represent employees. But in Alabama the company has opposed the union campaign. The U.A.W. has even accused the company of using illegal tactics.

The U.A.W. has filed six charges of unfair labor practices against Mercedes with the labor relations board, saying the company disciplined employees for discussing unionization at work, prevented organizers from distributing union materials, conducted surveillance of workers and fired workers who supported the union.

Mercedes denies the claims. The company “has not interfered with or retaliated against any team member in their right to pursue union representation,” it said in a statement, adding that it “firmly denies it has made any adverse employment decision based on union affiliation.”

Mercedes has also raised pay in recent months and made an effort to give workers more notice about changes in their schedules, workers said. But Mr. Ellis, the activist, said the improvements had come only “because of the union knocking at the door.”

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Preetha Nair


With over three decades of industry experience, Ms. Nair is a seasoned consultant specialized in ushering start-up companies into new markets. Currently serving as the Chairperson for World Trade Xpert, she leverages her expertise to build global channel partnerships, develop robust sales pipelines, and engage in advocacy with host governments on policy issues. Throughout her career, she has played a pivotal role in helping companies close business deals worth over 8 billion USD, demonstrating her ability to drive substantial revenue growth and market expansion on a global scale.