UAW Plots Next Steps After Tough Loss in Alabama

Joseph Szczesny

May 20, 2024

7 Min Read
Mercedes-Benz builds battery-electric EQS SUV at its complex in Alabama.
Mercedes-Benz builds battery-electric EQS SUV at its complex in Alabama.

The United Auto Workers is looking at the options for recruiting new members at auto factories in the Southeast after the union’s organizing loss at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL, last week.

The UAW is vowing the broad organization drive, targeting 13 different companies, will continue despite the union’s 56%-44% defeat in the election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Pending certification by the NLRB, the unofficial tally was 2,045 for the union and 2,642 against. Some 90% of the employees at the plant voted.

The turning point in the campaign, according to UAW President Shawn Fain and union organizers, came when Mercedes-Benz abruptly replaced Michael Goebel, the CEO at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International since 2019, with Frederico Kochlowski, a veteran manager with 20 years of experience at Mercedes plants in Germany, China and Mexico who last year joined MBUSI as vice president.

Goebel, an engineer by training, was instrumental in preparing the Vance complex to build electric vehicles but became expendable as the UAW drive intensified.

The company announcement came only two weeks before Mercedes workers began voting. Kochlowski quickly embarked on a campaign via video and text urging the 5,200 employees to give him a chance to turn things around in the plant and pledging to listen to their complaints.

Until then, the momentum was on the UAW side with the union claiming 70% of the workforce had signed cards asking for representation. In videos prepared by the UAW and statements to the local media, Mercedes employees put forth a long list of problems involving scheduling, job assignments, training, day-to-day supervision and the need for personal time off the job to attend to family matters.

“It's time we had a say in our working conditions,” says Chandrika Spencer, a Mercedes-Benz employee who voted for union representation because she wanted better health care. The widespread use of temporary employees in the plants is unresolved.

But the 70% of those said to have signed representation cards also appears to have included a lot of “persuadable voters” who were not completely locked into voting for the UAW. The union seems to have had no immediate answer to Kotchkoski’s appeal and other company messaging.

Rick Webster, another member of the organizing committee at Mercedes, tells In These Times, “The vote shows that we do have a really strong base though, and we just got to continue this fight. Obviously, everybody is going to be looking at Mercedes to see what they do from here. Are they actually going to try and improve conditions. Or are they just going to continue like nothing ever happened?”

MBUSI observes in a statement after the vote, "Our goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible Team Member had the opportunity to participate in a fair election. We thank all Team Members who asked questions, engaged in discussions and, ultimately, made their voices heard on this important issue.”

“The company told the workers to give the new CEO a chance,” Fain (pictured below, left) observes. “That’s exactly what Volkswagen told its workers in 2019. And in 2024, Volkswagen workers realized it’s not about a CEO. It’s about a voice on the job, it’s about getting our lives back, and getting our time back. The only path to do that is through a union contract.

Shawn-Headshot.jpg“These courageous workers at Mercedes reached out to the UAW because they wanted justice. They led us. And they lead us. What happens next is up to them,” says Fain, who personally invested time and effort into the campaign in Alabama.

The union intends to maintain and build on the base of support it has built in the Mercedes complex, which includes an assembly plant and a new battery plant,

“Justice isn’t about one vote or one campaign,” Fain says. “It’s about getting a voice, getting your fair share. And let’s be clear: workers won serious gains in this campaign. They raised their wages, with the ‘UAW bump.’”

Mercedes killed wage tiers, Fain notes, and got rid of a CEO who had no interest in improving conditions in the workplace. “Mercedes is a better place to work thanks to this campaign, and thanks to these courageous workers,” he adds.

However, what Fain deems Mercedes harassment and “illegal behavior” – at one point the company invited a local Black minister into the plant to speak out against the UAW while blocking distribution of pro-union literature – is under investigation by the federal government and the NLRB.

“This is a David and Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war,” Fain says. “There are more than 2,000 workers at Mercedes in Alabama who want to join our union. They aren’t going away. The sun will rise, and the sun will set, and our fight for justice for the working class will continue.”

Mercedes’ anti-union drive in the plant was backstopped by a separate but vocal anti-union campaign by Alabama’s conservative political establishment, spearheaded by the state’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey. “We will not let this threat from Detroit deter our progress, deter our hope and deter our folks’ prosperity,” says Ivey.

But the UAW’s defeat was hardly decisive at this point, experts note.

Arthur Wheaton, a labor expert from Cornell University, says the results were “not bad for a first vote, considering the anti-union politicians and outsiders trying to stop the union. It gives the UAW a good start for the second election. It is not surprising and also not hugely disappointing,” Wheaton says in an email to WardsAuto.

Mercedes is coming under fire for its handling of the vote in Alabama. Prior to the vote, the German Works Council, comprised of union leaders from over 30 companies in the German auto industry, pronounced its support for the UAW.

“Workers should remember that the family (Mercedes) it is talking about is a patriarchal one where the father takes in all the money and gives as little as possible to his subjects. The company knows that with a union they would have to bargain with a more powerful workforce on the distribution of the money earned. Of course they don’t want a union, they want the money,” says Atle Høie, general secretary for IndustriAll, the global metal workers union. IndustriAll has begun to take on a greater role in the fight over workers’ rights thanks in part to Tesla’s desire to avoid union contracts.

“This has nothing to do with family. A family is a unit that cares for you and that sees to it that you have your fair share. The company approach is deplorable and not in the interest of workers in any way," Hoie adds.

A UAW complaint now pending in German courts also could be very damaging to Mercedes-Benz under a new German law meant to prevent illicit conduct by any suppliers in long, global supply chains. The law was designed to prevent companies from using convict or slave labor – a sensitive subject in Germany – and provides guarantees for human and labor rights. Violators face potentially enormous fines.

Germany's Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control announced the formal investigation into Mercedes-Benz.

“Autoworkers in Alabama should have the same rights and be treated with the same respect as autoworkers in Germany,” says Jeremy Kimbrell, one of the plaintiffs, who has worked at the plant since 1999. “My coworkers and I are grateful to the German government for taking our testimonies and the evidence we have provided seriously and taking the first steps to hold the lawless, reckless Mercedes managers in Alabama accountable for their action.”

The UAW maintains Mercedes-Benz’s aggressive anti-union campaign against U.S. autoworkers in Alabama is a clear human rights violation under the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains.

Meanwhile, the UAW is pondering its next step and the next potential targets for its drive.

Prior to the loss in Vance, it seemed very likely the UAW would make the Hyundai factory in Montgomery, AL, its next target. Articles, in fact, appeared in the South Press last week, saying the UAW had petitioned for an election at the Hyundai.

The UAW says it has not petitioned for an election in Montgomery, but its options are under review.

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