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Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama vote against unionizing in blow to big UAW push

<i>Seth Herald/Reuters via CNN Newsource</i><br/>People react as the result of a vote comes in favour of the hourly factory workers at Volkswagen's assembly plant to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) union
Seth Herald/Reuters via CNN Newsource
People react as the result of a vote comes in favour of the hourly factory workers at Volkswagen's assembly plant to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) union

By Ramishah Maruf, CNN

New York (CNN) — Autoworkers at a Mercedes Benz plant in Alabama voted against joining the United Auto Workers union Friday, potentially stalling hopes of a rapidly growing organizing wave for autoworkers in the southern United States.

The result was a close outcome. Out of the valid votes counted, 56% of workers voted “no,” while 44% voted “yes” for unionization, according to Mercedes-Benz. The National Labor Relations Board said Friday there were more than 5,000 eligible voters.

The UAW was hoping to carry its strong momentum with the Alabama vote, as its decision to use a “stand up strike” strategy, hitting the Big Three automakers all at once, brought unprecedented attention and record contracts for workers. And last month, it won a union election at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, its first victory in three attempts to organize the factory.

Under relatively new UAW president Shawn Fain, the UAW had shifted its strategy for a membership push in non-unionized factories, many of which are located in the American South.

In a March interview with Car and Driver, Fain said the profit margins for the Japanese, Korean and German automakers were “obscenely more gross than they were at the Big Three, and yet their workers get less.”

“I truly believe we’re going to see a huge shift this year. I think we’re gonna win in the South,” he said in the interview.

In a press conference Friday, however, Fain said that losses are part of the process and that the union will “carry on and keep on fighting.”

“Not the result we wanted today, but I’m very proud of these workers. We keep our heads up and we march on,” Fain said.

In an emailed statement Friday, Fain said the Alabama workers “won serious gains in this campaign.” Fain said they raised wages with the “UAW bump,” which is when non-union companies gave non-unionized employees raises to compete with union contracts. Mercedes-Benz also named a new Alabama CEO ahead of the election.

Fain said Mercedes encouraged workers to give the new CEO a chance before elections.

“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,” he wrote.

In a statement, Mercedes-Benz US International said that “our goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible Team Member had the opportunity to participate in a fair election.”

“At MBUSI, our primary focus is always to provide a safe and supportive work environment for our Team Members, so they can build superior vehicles for the world. We look forward to continuing to work directly with our Team Members to ensure MBUSI is not only their employer of choice, but a place they would recommend to friends and family,” the statement continued.

Workers faced pressure

Six southern governors from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas issued a joint statement in April discouraging the union campaign, warning it could put workers’ jobs, as well as the auto industry in the South, in jeopardy. The statement came a day before workers at Volkswagen voted on joining the UAW.

“The reality is companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity. We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states. These jobs have become part of the fabric of the automotive manufacturing industry,” the statement said.

In a statement Friday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said that “automotive manufacturing is one of Alabama’s crown jewel industries” and that the state is “committed to keeping it that way.”

“The workers in Vance have spoken, and they have spoken clearly! Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW,” Ivey said in the statement.

Mercedes allegedly pushed back against unionization efforts in other ways, according to the UAW.

The National Labor Relations Board said it is investigating six unfair labor practice allegations filed by the UAW against Mercedes-Benz since March. Those accusations from the UAW allege Mercedes disciplined employees for discussing unionization during work, prohibited distribution of union materials, surveilled employees, and forced employees to attend “captive audience meetings,” which is a mandatory meeting during work hours meant to discourage unionizing.

Mercedes-Benz US International denied these claims, and said in a statement it “has not interfered with or retaliated against any Team Member in their right to pursue union representation.” It continued, “We do not believe these claims have merit and we look forward to presenting our case to the NLRB.”

Organizing the South

The UAW said it began an effort to organize workers at 13 non-union auto US factories in November 2023. The effort included three US-based electric vehicle makers — Tesla, Rivian and Lucid — as well as 10 foreign automakers that build cars in the US — BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

The South has been an attractive region for foreign automakers to open plants because of generous tax breaks and cheaper, non-union labor that generally doesn’t receive the wages or benefits won by unionized workers.

But last month, hourly workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, overwhelmingly voted to join the UAW — 73% of the 3,600 workers at the plant who cast ballots had voted to join the union.

The Chattanooga victory didn’t come easy for the UAW. Volkswagen didn’t win until its third union drive, said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ Buffalo office. This was the Mercedes plant’s first strong push, and labor experts say a loss at Mercedes isn’t the end of the push to organize the South.

“It’s not a catastrophe if they don’t win (the first time). Primarily because they’re facing a very active Mercedes Benz trying to block them from organizing, you got governors in the South trying to block them from organizing, and they don’t have the same track record or history or infrastructure in Alabama,” Wheaton said to CNN earlier this week.

In a press conference Friday, Fain said the difference between Mercedes and Volkswagen was that “Volkswagen was more neutral.”

“Until we can have an absolute, neutral, free and fair election… This is the fight we have to take on,” Fain said.

There are about 150,000 workers at nonunion auto plants in the United States today. That’s roughly the same amount of workers represented at the Big Three.

Since 1990, the South’s share of auto jobs has doubled from around 15% to 30% today, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Meanwhile, the Midwest’s share has declined from 60% to 45%.

“It’s not horrible if they lose, because it gives the UAW the chance to see where they’re at. They can gauge how much support they have,” Wheaton said.

This story has been updated with additional developments and context.

– CNN’s Chris Isidore and Nathaniel Meyersohn contributed to this report.

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