UAW Loses Unionization Vote at Mercedes Factories in Alabama

UAW Loses Unionization Vote at Mercedes Factories in Alabama

Workers at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, voted Friday against joining the United Automobile Workers, a major blow to the union’s campaign to gain a foothold in the South, where it has traditionally been weak.

The defeat came after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and other Republican leaders argued that a pro-union vote would stifle investments that have turned the state into a major auto producer. Hyundai and Honda also have large factories in Alabama that the UAW is trying to organize.

The vote took on national significance as a test of whether the UAW can build on a string of recent victories and gain ground in a state whose elected officials are hostile to organized labor. The union has said it wants to organize every automobile factory in the United States and expand its membership to include employees of companies like Toyota and Tesla.

But the loss at the Mercedes plants will almost certainly slow the union’s campaign and will likely force it to do more groundwork to secure workers’ support before trying to hold elections at other auto plants. Union leaders will want to spend time figuring out how best to counter the messages and tactics of local lawmakers and business leaders.

“It certainly hurts to lose,” Elizabeth Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, said Friday. “But we don’t see it as a loss, but as a temporary setback. The workers will persevere no matter what it takes.”

According to the National Labor Relations Board, which monitored the election, Mercedes workers voted 56 percent to 44 percent against joining the union. Almost 4,700 ballots were cast, representing a large majority of the 5,075 employees eligible to vote.

Auto executives and conservative lawmakers will likely be watching the Mercedes vote closely to determine how best to fend off the UAW and other unions in future campaigns and deter union campaigns from the start.

The South has become an important battlefield. States like Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee attract much of the billions of dollars that automakers and suppliers invest in electric vehicle and battery factories. The UAW wants to represent the workers in these factories.

Mercedes produces sport utility vehicles at a factory in Vance, Alabama, and battery packs for electric vehicles at a plant in nearby Woodstock. Elections have been going on in the two factories all week.

“We thank all team members who asked questions, participated in discussions and ultimately made their voices heard on this important issue,” the company said in a statement Friday.

In a largely verbal campaign, union activists argued that in addition to better wages and benefits, the UAW would protect Mercedes workers from abrupt changes to their hours and long shifts, including on weekends.

If we didn’t build these cars, you wouldn’t be putting the money you’re putting in your pockets,” said Kay Finklea, who works in quality control at Mercedes and has advocated for the union. “So treat us with dignity, treat us with respect and pay us.”

But activists acknowledged that many workers unhappy with working conditions at Mercedes were also wary of joining the union, influenced by warnings from company leaders and politicians that membership would lead to high contributions and loss of control over their jobs workplace.

Mercedes tried with all its might to block the union. In an apparent attempt to address employee complaints, the company last month overhauled local management, appointing Federico Kochlowski as managing director of the German company’s U.S. unit.

Mr. Kochlowski, who has worked at Mercedes for about 20 years in various production positions in China, Mexico and the United States, acknowledged that there were problems at the Alabama plants and promised to make improvements. “I understand that many things are not right,” he said in a video posted online by Mercedes. “Give me a chance.”

Union activists noted that Mr. Kochlowski was already a member of top management and interpreted his appointment as a last-minute attempt to fend off the UAW

The UAW has filed six unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes with the Labor Relations Board, saying the company punished employees for discussing union organizing in the workplace, prevented organizers from distributing union materials, monitored workers and fired workers who violated the union supported.

Mercedes denies the claims.

Previous attempts by the UAW to represent workers at Mercedes and other automakers in the South had failed. But the UAW is stronger than ever after winning a union vote last month at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee after previously losing two elections at the plant. The union also won big pay increases last year for workers at Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram.

Mercedes workers who support joining the UAW said they would continue to fight.

“Mercedes is going to unionize,” Robert Lett, who works at the Woodstock battery plant and has advocated for the union, said before the vote. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or in the future. The frustration is too great for us to unionize at some point.”

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2024-05-17 23:29:13