UAW, Buoyed by Detroit Three Deals, Targets Nonunion Plants

The UAW, coming off its successful contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers, is targeting Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen workers in the U.S. for unionization.

Joseph Szczesny

January 17, 2024

5 Min Read
MBUSA Alabama (Getty)
UAW sets sights on organizing Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama.Getty Images

After successfully campaigning for new contracts with Detroit’s three automakers, the UAW is pressing ahead with plans to organize workers at non-union auto factories in the South and the West and already is claiming support from employees of two German automakers.

UAW President Shawn Fain says during a Facebook livestream this week that the union has collected more than 1,000 signatures from among some 6,000 employees at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL. Fain says the union also has collected more than 2,000 signatures from among the 5,500 employees at the Volkswagen of America plant in Chattanooga, TN.

Federal law allows workers to request a union election once 30% of the workforce signs authorization cards. However, a committee of employees at Vance said it would try to get 70% of workers at the plant to sign cards, then request voluntary recognition by Mercedes-Benz or an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

“The fight against greed is never-ending,” Fain says during the livestream held on Martin Luther King Day. “If you are an employee at-will, the company has all the power.” The only way for workers to have any power is by coming together in a union, says Fain, who compares the effort to grow the UAW to the Civil Rights Movement led by King in the 1950s and 1960s.

The UAW’s website (pictured, below), which has become one of the union’s primary tools for the organizing push, carries a new message: “Non-union auto workers are being left behind. It is time for non-union autoworkers to join the UAW and win economic justice.” The site now includes tips for pro-union workers on how to approach uncommitted colleagues, and leaflets outlining the case for union representation that UAW backers can download and distribute to co-workers.

UAW website screenshot.png

UAW website screenshot

The non-union companies have been fighting back. Non-union companies – among them Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Volkswagen and Tesla – began raising hourly workers’ pay as part of their efforts to keep the UAW at bay. Scott Vazin, Toyota vice president of communications, says the wage increases at 11 Toyota plants took effect Jan. 1, while Nissan says raises at its U.S. plants took effect Jan. 8.

The wage hikes come amidst the UAW’s industrywide criticism of auto workers’ wages when compared to automakers’ record profits – an argument that worked well during the union’s campaign for new contracts at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The UAW website includes information on each of its potential organizing targets, highlighting the disparity between hourly workers’ compensation and the non-union companies’ executive pay, robust profits and the substantial sums directed to shareholders through stock buybacks.

“Toyota has made a quarter of a trillion dollars in profit in the past decade. Profits are up 30 percent. CEO pay is up 125 percent. Meanwhile, Toyota has offered just a 9 percent raise to convince Toyota workers not to organize,” notes a Toyota-oriented post on the UAW website.

“Honda’s vehicle prices are up 30 percent in the past three years, while CEO pay has more than doubled. Honda makes more than half of its revenue in the U.S., but American Honda workers are being left behind. It is time for Honda workers to Stand Up and fight for more,” says another post.

Past efforts to organize non-union plants have seen employers hire “union avoidance” consultants to dissuade and weaken workers’ unionization efforts – spending an estimated $433 million a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). These consultants work to prevent a union election from taking place; if that fails, to ensure that workers vote against the union.

Non-union automakers tend to minimize the threat from the UAW, though in private conversations it is clear union President Fain makes them nervous after leading the fight for big wage hikes with Detroit’s automakers.

Last year was “an extraordinary year for labor,” says Harley Shaiken, a University of California-based labor expert with an interest in the UAW. “They’re not going to win everything. But the UAW has the wind at its back,” adding more than 500,000 union members in the U.S., including 150,000 UAW members, and winning record contracts.

The pro-union EPI says the full scope of what non-union companies spend to block unionization is significantly higher.

“Legal hurdles and extremely well-funded opposition create huge barriers to organizing,” labor analyst Art Wheaton of Cornell University says in an email to WardsAuto. “The good news is that the UAW contracts with the Detroit Three, big public support, and bipartisan political support in their strikes can help.”

“Will all of them be successful? No. Is it possible one or two manage to win an election? Yes,” Wheaton adds.

The UAW also is lining up political support for its organizing drives.

The union has won support from 33 U.S. senators, all Democrats or Independents, calling on 13 non-union auto companies to refrain from “union-busting.” In a letter sent to the CEOs of the automakers, Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) stress the importance of respecting workers’ rights to form a union and encourage the companies to commit to neutrality in any organizing effort.  

During contract negotiations with Allison Transmission (pictured, below), the UAW and Fain continued to demand better wages and benefits. A tentative agreement covering 1,500 workers in Indianapolis was reached Jan. 5, a month after they overwhelmingly rejected an earlier contract proposal. 

Allison Transmission, which manufactures commercial-duty automatic transmissions and hybrid propulsion systems, amassed over half a billion dollars in profits through the first three quarters of 2023. CEO David Graziosi has raked in $18 million in the past two years alone.

“We gave up a lot during the (2007-2009) recession, and in those years there really hasn’t been a reciprocation of the sacrifices we made during that time,” UAW Local 933 member Pattie Evans told an Indianapolis TV station before the latest deal was struck.

Allison Transmission flags.jpg

Allison Transmission flags_0

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