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UAW Vows to Return After Decisive Loss at Alabama Mercedes Plants

The union lost in a decisive vote.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW.
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW.
AP Photo/Kim Chandler

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) β€” A decisive vote against the United Auto Workers union at two Mercedes factories in Alabama on Friday sidetracked the UAW's grand plan to sign up workers at nonunion plants mainly in the South.

But newly elected President Shawn Fain said the union will return to Mercedes and will press on with efforts to organize about 150,000 workers at more than a dozen auto factories across the nation.

Employees at Mercedes battery and assembly plants near Tuscaloosa voted 56% against the union in an election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

The vote count handed the union a serious setback a month after the UAW scored a breakthrough victory at Volkswagen's 4,300-worker assembly factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The NLRB's final tally showed a vote of 2,642 against the union, with 2,045 in favor. Nearly 93% of workers eligible to vote cast ballots.

Marick Masters, a professor emeritus at Wayne State University's business school who has long studied the union, said the UAW will have to analyze what went wrong and apply those lessons as it moves to other nonunion factories largely in the South.

"They're going to have to go back to the drawing board," said Masters, who added that the union will need to ask itself if it needs to get more workers to sign cards seeking a union election before calling for a vote. The union may also want to respond faster to management opposition, he said.

"Do they need to assess more realistically the actual level of grievances and how passionately workers are to stay committed to a union organizing effort in the face of opposition?" Masters asked.

Fain assured workers that the union will return, telling them the loss was a bump in the road, not failure. He said he told company officials the fight was not over.

"We've been here before, and we're going to continue on and we're going to win," he said. "And I think we'll have a different result down the road, and I look forward to that."

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

Whether the union challenges the election will be up to its lawyers, said Fain, who accused the company of "egregious illegal behavior."

The union already has filed unfair labor practice complaints against the company alleging that management and anti-union consultants tried to intimidate workers. Mercedes has denied the allegations.

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

A big difference between the loss at Mercedes and the overwhelming win at Volkswagen, Fain said, was that Mercedes actively fought the union. "Obviously, Volkswagen was more neutral, and that wasn't the case here," he said of Mercedes, which he accused of holding captive meetings of workers to campaign against the UAW.

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.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who has campaigned against the union, wrote in a post on X 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 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 Kirk 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.

The UAW won at Volkswagen largely because of the prospect of substantially higher wages and other benefits. Contracts reached with the Detroit Three automakers, General Motors, Stellantis and Ford, brought 33% raises between now and 2028 when the deals expire, giving the union a large recruiting tool.

Before VW, the United Auto Workers had little success 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 Midwestern 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.

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.

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