A Loss at Mercedes-Benz Slows U.A.W.’s Southern Campaign

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A Loss at Mercedes-Benz Slows U.A.W.’s Southern Campaign

After a setback at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama on Friday, efforts by the United Automobile Workers union to organize other auto plants in the South are likely to wane and may struggle to make headway.

About 56 percent of Mercedes workers who voted opposed the UAW in an election after the union scored two major election victories this year. In April, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted to join the union, the first major non-union auto plant in the South to do so. Weeks later, the union negotiated a new contract that gave its members significant pay and benefit improvements at several Daimler Truck plants in North Carolina.

“A defeat at Mercedes does not mean the death of the union,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It just means they have less confidence when they go to the next plant. The UAW is in it for the long haul. I don’t think they’re going to stop just because they lost here.”

Since its founding in 1935, the UAW has represented workers almost exclusively at three Michigan-based automakers: General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler, now part of Stellantis. And it has long struggled to make headway at foreign manufacturers' plants, particularly in the Southern states where anti-union sentiment runs deep.

Workers at the Volkswagen plant had twice narrowly voted against UAW representation before the union's recent victory. An attempt to organize one of Mercedes' factories a decade ago failed to attract enough support for an election.

Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that large-scale union organizing efforts rarely go smoothly. In the 1930s, the UAW gained recognition at GM and Chrysler, but struggled at Ford, which continued to employ non-union workers for several years.

“I have no doubt that they will continue to organize and eventually try to bring about another vote,” he said.

In its previous efforts in the South, the union was hampered by a negative image, which may also have contributed to the UAW's loss at Mercedes. For years, the three Michigan automakers have cut jobs and closed plants, in part because of rigid and costly labor contracts. The union has also been hurt by corruption cases that landed several former high-ranking officials, including two former UAW presidents, behind bars.

Business leaders in Alabama waged a campaign against the UAW based in part on claims that the union was responsible for Detroit's decline. In an opinion piece published in the Alabama Daily News in January, Business Council of Alabama executive director Helena Duncan said the state would suffer the same fate if workers voted for the union.

“Much of the decay that exists in the Motor City today is due to the untenable demands the UAW made on its automakers, an ill-advised move that shifted countless jobs to right-to-work states like ours and once so Great state paralyzed “metropolis,” Ms. Duncan wrote.

A year ago, the union elected a new president, Shawn Fain, who remained untouched by the corruption scandals and promised to be more aggressive in contract negotiations. Last fall, the union achieved significant wage and benefit increases in negotiations with Detroit automakers after targeted strikes that lasted about 40 days. Hundreds of auto workers in the South began coming forward to ask for help organizing their non-union workplaces. The UAW responded by announcing that it would spend $40 million organizing actions over the next two years.

“I'm not afraid at all,” Mr. Fain said Friday in Alabama after the union lost the Mercedes vote. “I believe workers want unions, I believe they want justice, and we will continue to do what we can.”

Mercedes emphasized its direct relationship with workers in a statement and said it looked forward to ensuring the company was “not only their employer of choice, but also a place they would recommend to friends and family.”

The union has signaled it will likely focus its organizing efforts on another plant in Alabama — a Hyundai plant in Montgomery. But organizing that plant will likely be even more difficult than the campaign at Mercedes factories, said Erik Gordon, an economics professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry.

The UAW had allies at Volkswagen and Mercedes. Trade unions are influential players in Germany, where these two companies are based. Under German law, employee representatives must fill half of the seats on a company's supervisory board, which is equivalent to an American board of directors.

Both Volkswagen and Mercedes have groups called works councils where managers and employees discuss and negotiate workplace issues and production schedules. In its push into the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the UAW had the support of the company's works council and IG Metall, the powerful union that represents all German auto workers.

The UAW won't have that kind of support at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Gordon says. “In general, Korean automakers have a more hostile relationship with unions than German manufacturers,” he says. “Korean companies are less used to sitting in a conference room with unions.”

Last year, just weeks after the UAW won wage and benefit increases from the three Michigan-based automakers, Hyundai announced that it would significantly increase its workers' wages over the next four years – a move that was widely viewed as an attempt will dampen workers' interest in joining the UAW

“The decision to be represented by a union rests with our team members,” Hyundai said in a statement.

The Montgomery plant produces two popular sport utility vehicles – the Tucson and the Santa Fe – and employs approximately 4,000 people. A previous UAW initiative to establish the plant in 2016 failed without reaching a vote.

Last fall, the union announced it planned to target plants owned by 10 foreign automakers – Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda and Volvo – as well as other plants owned by Texas-based Tesla take , and two smaller electric vehicle startups, Lucid and Rivian, both based in California.

The U.S. plants of these foreign and U.S. companies employ nearly 150,000 workers in 13 states, the union said.

In Alabama, however, the UAW may have faced a more hostile environment than elsewhere. During the Mercedes campaign, Gov. Kay Ivey spoke out against the union and led a group of six Southern governors, all Republicans, who issued a letter suggesting that unionization could result in automakers removing jobs from theirs Moving states. A senior Alabama politician described the UAW as a “leech.”

Mercedes brought in Nick Saban, the wildly popular former University of Alabama football coach, to speak to the workers and persuade them to vote against the UAW

Unions have traditionally been considered a Northern institution and are often associated with the civil rights movement, alienating many people in Alabama, Mr. Gordon said. “It's a very difficult situation for the UAW,” he said.

That reluctance could also make it difficult for the UAW to negotiate contracts that guarantee its members pay raises and other benefits, even if it wins union votes. Lawmakers who oppose unions could put pressure on employers not to make major concessions in negotiations.

Mr. Fain and the UAW have argued that unions are the best way for workers to demand higher wages when automakers in North America are posting strong sales and profits.

Public support for unions is stronger than it has been in years, including in the South. This year, 600 workers at an electric bus factory in Alabama voted to join the Communications Workers of America union. A week ago, they negotiated a new contract that includes raises and expanded benefits.

The UAW and other unions have also enjoyed the support of President Biden, who Last fall, they joined striking auto workers on a strike line in Michigan. The union supported Mr Biden in this year's election.

But that close connection to the president could also hurt the UAW, as conservative workers in a southern state favor Mr. Biden's opponent — former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Fain and Mr. Trump have often criticized each other, but polls have shown that a sizable minority of union households support the former president.