Mercedes-Benz autoworkers in Alabama want to join the UAW. Here’s what the past could teach them

Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, assemble an electric vehicle on Aug. 25, 2022.

Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, assemble an electric vehicle on Aug. 25, 2022. The United Auto Workers union said Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, that 30% of the workforce at the plant have signed union authorization cards and have created a public organizing committee.

Stephan Bisaha, Gulf States Newsroom

After notching its biggest victory in decades, the United Auto Workers union is setting its eyes on an old battleground — the South.

A six-week-long, targeted strike in 2023 against the Big Three automakers — GM, Stellantis and Ford — led to new contracts guaranteeing wages going up at least 25% over the next four years.

Bolstered by their win, UAW President Shawn Fain said his next goal is recruiting non-unionized autoworkers, many of them located in the South. The UAW said Wednesday that 30% of the workforce at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, have signed union authorization cards and have created a public organizing committee. The Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, reached 30% last month.

It’s not the first time a UAW president has targeted the South or these specific plants. In the 2010s, the union campaigned to represent workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, the Mercedes plant in Vance, and the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

All three campaigns failed.

Stephen Silvia wrote about those efforts and the UAW’s other Southern union drives in his book, “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants.”

Silvia spoke with the Gulf States Newsroom’s Stephan Bisaha about the campaigns in the Gulf South and how the UAW can learn from them with its current push.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama

What made it so difficult for UAW to unionize [the Mercedes-Benz] plant?

So, with the Mercedes plant, it has been particularly difficult for two reasons. One, Mercedes is the only company that pays similar levels of compensation to the actual UAW contract. [Note: This refers to the previous contract before the UAW strike]

As a result, if you’re an employee, you can look at it and say, ‘Well, I could unionize, but I’m not going to get any more pay and benefits than I have now.’

The other issue is that the plant uses a pretty big share of the workforce as temporary employees. The employees don’t even work for Mercedes. They work for temp agencies and Mercedes hires them. So the unionization effort, the way the law is written, is only for permanent employees.

You may be asking, why did they try to organize it in the first place? The answer is that they had good relations with the German union that organized the Mercedes plants in Germany. They were hopeful to use their good relationship with the German union and the substantial leverage that unions have in Germany to organize the plant. It didn’t pan out, but it was a reasonable bet to make.

Why didn’t it pan out?

[It] partly has to do with personality. Mercedes is a subsidiary of Daimler. Now, the funny thing is Daimler also owns Freightliner, the truck company, which has several plants in North Carolina. And Freightliner was organized by the UAW.

And so, you have the same CEO at that time, Dieter Zetsche, working very constructively with Freightliner. But he’s resisting having the union come in in the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama. It’s a bit of a conundrum on why. But his experience with the UAW president at the time, a guy named Stephen Yokich … led Zetsche to decide he was going to dig in his heels and not be cooperative and allow that Mercedes plant in Alabama to be organized.

Well, also, the state and local politicians got pretty involved in pushing off a union here. Correct?

Yeah, absolutely. The Mercedes plant in Alabama was a big breakthrough for foreign companies in the amount of money they got to subsidize building a plant that broke the $100 million barrier. They got up to about $300 million for that plant. One of the things [then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley] would say over and over is, ‘We do not want this plant to be unionized. We don’t think that would be good for the state of Alabama.’

And that had an effect?

That did have an effect. I think the company didn’t want to fall into bad graces with the governor or the state legislature because they could change the law and change the packages that they set up for the company. Some of these things are out-and-out money transfers, but others are favorable tax benefits, supporting vocational training.

There are a number of things that a state government could do as far as withdrawing money even after the fact of the plant being built. That gives the governor legislative leverage over the companies.

If you’re talking with Shawn Fain, the current president of the UAW, and you’re giving him a lesson on this Mercedes plant and the attempts in the past by the UAW, what is the big lesson he should take from that as he looks to unionize in the South?

I would focus on other Southern plants first and try to build up momentum.

So don’t even bother?

Not that one. Because of the high pay, in particular, and the high percentage of the workforce that is temporary. I would go elsewhere first and try to build up momentum.

On the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi

What made [the Nissan plant] campaign unique?

The campaign by the UAW in Canton, Mississippi, was a unique one because the UAW decided to stress civil rights and point out that joining a union is indeed a civil right and a human right. It’s recognized in several different places, including, by the International Labor Organization [and] to some extent by the United Nations.

The UAW focused on community organizing in a way that they did not in the other drives that they did in the 2010s. They focused on African American churches and the African American community because the employees in that plant are 80% African American. So it made sense for them to do that, and they were pretty effective in organizing the community. They were also effective in organizing local universities where there was a large Black student body.

As far as the external side of a unionization drive, the UAW did the best of the three plants that it was trying to organize at the time in Canton, Mississippi.

It also was a big international deal. And on the national side, you had Bernie Sanders coming in, actor Danny Glover. You had support from political leaders in France and Brazil — this was a big deal.

They did a lot of international organizing, and they even got the issue to be discussed in the French National Assembly, the Brazilian Parliament, and they got letters from unions from about 20 different countries. They really stressed the international side and were pretty successful in pulling things together.

It sounds like you had a lot of praise for the civil rights angle.

Yes. I think it makes sense. And the one thing that I think is worth pointing out is the UAW has a historical track record of strong support for the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. The single biggest contributor to the March on Washington in 1963 was the UAW.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Oh, yeah. You see at the 1963 March on Washington, Walter Reuther, the UAW president, standing next to Martin Luther King Jr.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, the UAW sent down a couple of the officers of the union with money belts, with tens of thousands of dollars strapped to them in order to bail [him] out. So, the UAW really has the street cred to be supporting civil rights. And that’s something that they brought up.

Now all that local and international and national support sounds like they were successful there. How successful were they with the workers themselves?

They had trouble getting more than a third or so of the employees to be willing to vote for the union. So when they went to vote, they lost by a pretty big margin.

It sounds like this effective messaging, though, wasn’t enough to overcome pretty aggressive anti-union messaging from Nissan.

Yeah. It wasn’t and part of the thing is the familiar story about these plants in the South that you had a plant set in a rural area. And for the employees, many of them, this is the best job they’ve ever had, and it’s the best job they ever will have. They’ve gone from renting a trailer to owning a house. And they’re getting a reduced rate lease on cars, so they can get a pretty good car.

Working at one of these plants can be life-changing. So they’ll look at it and say, ‘You know, I understand what the UAW is saying, that they might be able to protect me more, but I really don’t want to take the risk.’

How workers can benefit from a union

You describe the union avoidance playbook that a lot of these foreign auto manufacturers rely on as things like closed-door meetings, but also very few layoffs. They pay close to union wages and offer benefits, some that aren’t even in union contracts. They invest in the local community. If a company’s doing all that for its workers, do the workers really need a union at that point?

It’s a good point, in that the union avoidance playbook certainly has carrots as well as sticks. So why would you need a union? Well, I’d say, you get voice if you have a union.

To give you an example: Volkswagen, Chattanooga. They, about 4 or 5 years ago, changed the way they were dealing with compensation when they shut down the plant to retool [it]. Now, all auto plants do this. If you have a new model or if the stamp equipment wears out, you have to shut down the plant for a week or so.

The company said, OK, you’re going to use your paid time off days during this shutdown, and you don’t have any choice about it.’

If I remember correctly, the workers did end up getting the changes. Is that an example of maybe you don’t need a union if they can still affect that change?

But afterward, they reversed it and undid it. When you have a union, you can make things permanent. If you don’t have a union, when the company thinks it’s the right time, it’ll slip back into implementing the kind of policies that aren’t the policies that the workers want.

The UAW’s chances today

When I’ve spoken with other labor union experts, they tend to fall into two camps: some say unions need to be better at organizing, and that’s the reason union membership is so low in the country. Others say it doesn’t matter how good your campaign is if U.S. laws continue to make it easy for a company to resist a union. After studying all these different UAW campaigns in the South, which camp do you fall under?

I don’t think it’s inevitable that unions will lose in the South. I think it’s hard. It’s much harder than in the North. So you need to really have a flawless or a near-flawless campaign to succeed. But it’s possible.

The other thing, I think, is that the union has to think more holistically and not try to do what the UAW did in the 2010s — where they focused on trying to persuade management to be sympathetic toward unionization. I don’t think that’s going to work. And it didn’t work. You need to make your focus on the employees.

You’re also saying it was possible before. And in all these campaigns, they seem to at least have had a shot. Is it a matter of they have the same shot as before, or is there anything that makes you think things are more or less favorable in the near future?

One thing that lends some favorability to unionization attempts down the road is the Biden Administration — since the Biden Administration has been [setting] standards for companies that take subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act to build [electric] vehicles. That is a new leverage point that exists for the new EV plants that are being built and will be built over the next five years or so.

The only other thing I would say if I were advising Shawn Fain, is don’t completely forget about dealing with unions in other countries. Shawn Fain has already talked about working with the unions in Mexico, and I think that’s smart to work with the unions [there] to see what they can do to make the wage differential between Mexico and the United States smaller than it is now.

I also wouldn’t give up on dealing with the German unions. And I would focus primarily on the employees, but I would not ignore trying to move management to be more sympathetic to unionization than they have been in the past.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR


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