United States: Battle to unionise car workers in the South faces a setback

May 29, 2024
unionists with signs
The United Auto Workers’ drive at Mercedes Benz faced a relentless anti-union campaign by the company, backed by six state governors. Photo: United Auto Workers

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is in the vanguard of the labour movement in the United States, with its fight to organise car workers in the notoriously anti-union Deep South.

The UAW's new militancy is also seen in the struggle by academic workers organised by the union in support of students fighting for justice for Palestine.

After a victorious strike last year at the Detroit-based “Big Three” US-owned companies — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — the union launched a drive to organise foreign-owned plants in the South.

The German-owned Volkswagen (VW) plant in Tennessee was the first up and the union won a major victory there in April, following two failed attempts to unionise the plant.

While the state governor pushed anti-union values, car workers said “Yes” to a union. The Tennessee victory remains a positive harbinger of future union drives.

Setback at Mercedes-Benz

Workers at Mercedes-Benz’s Tuscaloosa plant, located about 60 miles southwest of Birmingham, Alabama, were next in the UAW’s drive.

Mercedes-Benz workers have produced more than 4 million vehicles since the plant opened in 1997 and 295,000 vehicles last year, including electric vehicles.

There were early signs of a victory at Mercedes-Benz because more than two-thirds of the plant's workers signed cards supporting a ballot for unionisation. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) held the ballot in May, but in a setback for the UAW drive, the vote went against the union by 56% to 44%.

The UAW expected the Mercedes-Benz campaign to be more challenging than the VW vote, as the union had already established a presence at VW after two failed organising drives in the past decade. They also had less opposition from the carmaker.

However, the UAW’s drive at Mercedes Benz faced a relentless anti-union campaign by the company, backed by six state governors led by Alabama’s Republican governor Kay Ivey. After the "No" result was declared on May 17, she said workers had “voted for Alabama values”.

“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. We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election.”

Alabama remains a stronghold of openly racist politicians whose forbearers were the backbone of the “Jim Crow” segregation in the former slave-owning South. African Americans remain a big segment of manufacturing workers in the state.

The UAW has now asked the NLRB to order a new vote, alleging that Mercedes-Benz violated labour laws to prevent unionisation. The company’s campaign was marked by “wanton lawlessness”, according to the UAW. Among other things, the company allegedly fired four workers who supported the union, prevented pro-union employees from campaigning and forced workers to watch anti-union videos.

The UAW has filed six unfair labour practice charges against Mercedes-Benz with the NLRB since March. According to the NLRB, the charges allege that the company has “disciplined employees for discussing unionisation at work, prohibited distribution of union materials and paraphernalia, surveilled employees, discharged union supporters, forced employees to attend captive audience meetings, and made statements suggesting that union activity is futile.”

Fight not over

For UAW President Shawn Fain, despite the result at Mercedes-Benz, the fight is far from over. Fain said the vote wasn’t a failure, but a “bump in the road”.

“While this loss stings,” Fain said, “These workers have nothing to do but be proud in the effort they put forth and what they've done.

We fought the good fight and we’re going to continue, continue forward. Ultimately, these workers here are going to win.”

Dianne Feeley, a retired car parts worker and UAW militant, analysed the challenges the UAW faces in the South.

In a post on the socialist Solidarity website on May 24 Feeley wrote that foreign-owned car companies “were courted by many states, who offered them tax incentives and grants” and these companies “[built] their plants in more rural areas where there were fewer work opportunities after previous industries had shut down”.

“[T]hey learned how to avoid hiring people with union backgrounds and came to rely more and more on temporary agencies for staffing. Paying wages that were higher than businesses in the surrounding area, the companies sometimes matched the wages of UAW plants, but their benefits rarely did.

“They also watched the concessions the UAW gave to the Big Three and made sure to adjust accordingly. Most importantly, workplace health and safety were significantly poorer — partly because state regulations were weaker.

“Just as these foreign-owned companies learned new business practices, the Big Three and the parts plants they spun off in the '90s picked up tips from these newbies. In reality, they learned from each other. Breaking the concessionary lock at the Big Three [in the UAW strike in 2023] opened the door to ending the inequalities baked into the non-union plants.”

Feeley wrote that despite not being unionised, Mercedes-Benz workers also benefited from the 2023 UAW strike and an end to two-tier wages.

However, “Still stretched to the breaking point with 12-hour days, Mercedes workers faced a combination of the company’s carrot-and-stick approach” in the unionisation ballot.

“The company’s intimidation tactics included disciplining and even firing union activists, captive-audience meetings, and a barrage of anti-union messages over in-plant monitors, as well as mailings and text messages.

“What turned out to be the company’s most effective and dramatic action was the firing of its CEO, replacing him with one who pledged to work to make needed improvements,” wrote Feeley.

The company also enlisted the help of a local pastor in its anti-union campaign, wrote Feeley.

“Just days before the vote, Baptist minister Matthew Wilson’s video message urged workers to give [new Mercedes-Benz] CEO Federico Pablo Kochlowski a chance. He then toured the facility with the plant manager. According to the interviews with workers this may have been the most decisive tactic that turned ‘yes’ votes into ‘no’ votes.”

During the VW unionisation drive, there were organisers inside the plant and volunteers outside. The volunteer organising committee drew lessons from past attempts and harnessed the knowledge of those who had been part of a union at other workplaces. They leafleted in the parking lot and in break rooms; they talked about on-the-job issues and refuted points made by politicians who had no idea of their problems at work.

Key to the VW success were short videos produced by UAW staff, featuring supportive statements by diverse groups of workers, many with Southern accents. It demonstrated that this was a home-grown movement.

The UAW’s charges against Mercedes-Benz also relate to the company’s alleged violations of Germany’s Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, adopted in January last year. The German government has announced that the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control has begun a formal investigation.

On-the-ground organising and building broader public volunteer support will decide what happens next.

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