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Alabama Mercedes Workers Lose First Union Election, Vow to Continue the Fight

“We’ve been trying this for 25 years,” one worker said. “We’ll try again next year and every year till we get it.”

Employees work on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International assembly plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on January 1, 2010.

A no-holds-barred campaign by Mercedes management convinced a majority of workers at its Alabama factory complex to vote against forming a union.

In addition to anti-union videos and mailings, captive-audience meetings, firings, and an onslaught of pressure from state politicians and even a local pastor, the winning move was to fire the company’s U.S. CEO and replace him with a vice president who promised to care about the “team members.”

A team leader named Ray, who voted no, said his area was 100 percent union before the former CEO was removed. “[New CEO] Federico [Kochlowski] has been a positive influence,” he said. “A lot of people want to give him a chance. It was all production-driven before him; he’s more about the team members. He’s willing to change.”

“We have a year. We have that year to see what he does. If he doesn’t make positive changes we can bring the union in.” (After losing an election a union has to wait a year before filing a new petition for the same group of workers.)

The vote, held May 13-17, was 2,045 in favor of forming a union to 2,642 against. The majority of the workforce is Black. There were 51 challenged ballots, and five voided; 5,075 workers, not including contract workers, were eligible to vote.

“These courageous workers took on this fight because they wanted justice,” said United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain. He said the federal government and the German government are investigating the intimidation that Mercedes inflicted on workers, following the “same playbook” of union-busting as other U.S. employers.

“Ultimately these workers are going to win,” he said. “We have no regrets in this fight.”

Pro-union fit and finish worker Rick Webster had brought his fourth-grade son Aaron to the vote count. “I wanted him to witness history,” he said shortly beforehand. “It’s going to be life-changing. We can’t wait. We will be able to negotiate instead of being dictated to.”

At Mercedes, previous union efforts had never gotten this far. So this was the first time workers had experienced a full-on anti-union campaign — and it worked on some of them. A worker named Keda, for example, said she wanted to “give Federico a chance.” She pointed to management’s elimination of two-tier wages as an indication of good faith.

Others voted no more out of fear than out of hope. “If it’s not broke, don’t rock the boat,” said a worker named Terry. Team leader Arthur Bates said he didn’t want to see layoffs. “Mercedes has shareholders and they have to keep the shareholders happy,” he explained. “If they lose some money somewhere, the company will find a way to make that money back.”

The workers who have been fighting so hard to organize were surprised and disappointed at the loss — but they said their resolve wasn’t shaken. “We’ll try to figure out what we did wrong, where we missed the mark,” said battery worker Robert Lett. “We’ll try to figure out how to shore up for the next time. Because there will be another time. We’re not just going to shrug and walk away.

“We know this company; we know their M.O. We know the company values their profits more than they value their employees. As soon as they feel like it’s advantageous to them, they’re not going to take workers’ personal lives into account.”

“It’s disappointing that some of our supporters slipped to vote no,” said Kirk Garner, a quality worker in plant two. “It’s disappointing that the company put on an anti-union campaign when it was part of their company policy not to.”

But, he said, “we’ve been trying this for 25 years. We’ll try again next year and every year till we get it. We’ll wait three or four months and start over.”

ONE WIN, ONE LOSS

The UAW declared last fall after winning landmark contracts at the Big 3 automakers General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis that it would springboard its militant strike into organizing across more than two dozen non-union auto plants.

Today’s loss follows a landmark union victory April 19 at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where 4,300 workers joined the UAW — the first auto assembly plant election the union had won in the South since the 1940s.

Workers there had been through two previous narrowly lost union campaigns, in 2014 and 2019. Their management had promised to “do better,” and workers had been let down each time. That, combined with the momentum of the UAW’s record contracts in fall 2023, gave nearly three-quarters of VW workers the impetus to vote yes last month.

The success at Volkswagen boosted organizing at Mercedes, though not quite enough to put it over the top. “When Volkswagen workers won their union, when Daimler Truck got their big raise, we could point to it — this isn’t just a dream that we’re selling,” said Lett.

Today’s sad outcome makes the score so far one win and one loss in the UAW’s $40 million push to bring 150,000 non-union auto workers into the union, most of them in Southern states—and all of them facing employers, from Toyota to BMW, who located their plants with an eye to remaining union-free.

DOLING OUT CARROTS

Mercedes’ union-busting program included doling out carrots. In February, a month after workers reached 30 percent on union cards, the company announced it would hike the top pay by $2 and eliminate the wage tiers, so now everyone would top out at $34 after four years.

Michael Göbel, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, stepped down in a video message that workers were shown in April. Göbel had groused in a captive-audience meeting about a worker’s claim that Mercedes had come here for the “Alabama discount”: low wages. The top pay of $34 may appear high, but not compared to $43 for production workers at Ford by the contract’s end in 2028.

Though his departure showed the union drive was already getting results, the firing of Göbel swayed some workers into the “no” column. Kochlowski circulated a letter the first day of voting thanking workers for a “warm welcome,” promising vague things like “to make this a place you’re proud to work,” and imploring them to give him a chance. He had walked the floor the last two weeks talking to literally thousands of workers and making promises.

“People bought that bullshit about the new CEO,” said David Johnston, a battery worker on the organizing committee. “We needed every vote we could get to win, especially in plant two [the non-electric vehicle plant]. But unfortunately workers flipped. The fight is far from over.”

Sandra, with 21 years in, works in quality control. She voted no. “I pray it doesn’t happen,” she said before the vote count. “I earned a really good living, put two kids in the University of Alabama without having to take out loans, at $27 an hour. Now I make $34.

“Is any company perfect? No. The new president is willing to work with us team members. You still can earn a good living. Some of the people pushing the union are disgruntled.”

…AND THE STICK

But Mercedes also brought out the stick. It sent a barrage of anti-union text messages, held captive-audience meetings to grill union supporters, played anti-union videos at daily team meetings, put an anti-union banner at the factory entrance, and hired a union-busting firm, RWP. That’s to be expected in the dictatorships that are U.S. workplaces.

“The company brought in some anti-union consultants,” Garner said. “They would bring small groups into a meeting room and show them videos with half-truths about unions — and apparently that worked on some people.

“They get paid $3,200 a day apiece and there were three of them, for three weeks. You can check that out when they file their LM-20 at the end of the month.”

The company’s official “principles” say executives will remain neutral in organizing campaigns, but Mercedes has carried on its anti-union offensive even after the UAW filed charges against it last month for violating a German supply chain law and after the U.S. government and the European Commission asked it to respect workers’ right to organize.

The German government is now investigating Mercedes for illegal union-busting conduct. The Alabama plant is operated by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, a subsidiary of Stuttgart-based Mercedes-Benz Group AG.

“Alabama auto workers are sick of the interference from Mercedes in our organization efforts,” said battery plant worker Brett Garrard ahead of the vote. “This is what we deal with — not to mention the captive-audience meetings, the mandatory anti-union videos and propaganda they force-feed us after we are on the clock, in what is supposed to be our start-up meeting to discuss the daily topics such as safety, quality, and morale.”

“They were clearly trying to prey on people’s emotions with the constant barrage from all sides,” Lett said.

The UAW filed six unfair labor practice charges against the company for firing union supporters, banning union materials, surveilling employees, holding captive-audience meetings, disciplining employees for discussing unionization, and implying that union activity is futile.

“I’ve got no use for it,” said Tim Earnest, a quality worker who has been here 27 years. “We don’t need them. They are a divisive force.”

Ciarra Tate, an assembly worker, said she didn’t vote at all because she was only planning to work here for the short term, planning to start a career in health care. She has been at Mercedes two years.

HEAVY POLITICAL PRESSURE

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and the Business Council of Alabama have been vociferous in their opposition to the UAW’s new drives. Ivey said that unions would attack “the Alabama model for economic success.”

Six Southern governors, including Ivey, signed an April letter urging workers to reject the UAW lest they undermine the auto industry’s growth.

As workers began voting this week, Ivey signed legislation May 13 that would revoke economic incentives for companies that voluntarily recognize unions. Nathaniel Ledbetter, the Republican speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, who pushed the law through, called the UAW “dangerous leeches” in an anti-union op-ed.

Ivey said at a Chamber of Commerce function, “We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state.”

“We’re up against our local government,” said Garrard. “We’re up against the Business Council of Alabama, the corporate elites, and we’re working-class Americans. So why are you waging war on us?

“This is not a political fight. We just seem to have a political enemy. Our fight is for fair treatment, respect, and auto worker pay.”

COMPANY PASTOR

As Mercedes workers began their 12-hour shifts at 6 a.m. May 13, their phones buzzed with a company text message: “Here in Alabama, community is important, and family is everything. We believe it’s important to keep work separate. But there’s no denying, a union would have an impact beyond the walls of our plant.”

For its last-ditch union-busting effort, Mercedes called in divine intervention in the form of a video message from Reverend Matthew Wilson, a pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama, and a city councilperson for Tuscaloosa.

In the video, Rev. Wilson implored workers to give Kochlowski a chance, saying “the legacy of the state of Alabama is counting” on it. The reverend also walked around the shop floor talking to workers one on one.

“This is a strategy as old as unions,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner of the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations. Indeed, in the 1930s Henry Ford recruited Black pastors to recommend new-hires and oppose the UAW at his Ford Rouge plant outside Detroit.

“Particularly in towns dominated by a very large corporation,” Bronfenbrenner said, “companies give enough money to churches to purchase their long-term loyalty, and rely on the church leaders to preach an anti-union message.”

“They had everything, except the guys in the mob movies with the billy clubs doing the union-busting,” said Lett.

WORKER-RUN CAMPAIGN

Previous efforts at Mercedes over the past two decades had always fizzled before coming to a vote, the most recent in 2022, stalled at 20 percent on cards.

What was different about this drive? “First off, the workers were up front leading the campaign as opposed to the previous one,” Lett said.

And the organizing took place mainly inside the plant, rather than in house-visit blitzes: “The strategy this time was to focus on the area that you work in and talk to the people you see literally every day, because you already have rapport with them.”

Lett said workers took pains not to make it sound like they were recruiters or selling anything.

Those in different work areas played different roles. “If you’re someone like me whose position is constrained to one particular spot, you see the same handful of people all the time. So I’m talking to them,” he said.

“If you’re a tugger or forklift driver, you’re going all around the shop grabbing parts, delivering parts. I might not have the same kind of rapport with people I see. But I can come back, ‘Hey, man, the people on trim three, they’re not really feeling the union. Someone should go talk to them.’

“And so you’re able to build a network, able to figure out where the strengths and weaknesses are. And you can actually strategize based on what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong to make these adjustments in real time.”

GRUELING UNDERSTAFFING

The organizing drive was fueled by workers’ anger. Plant conditions had gotten more and more grueling, due to a combination of high turnover and understaffing.

At the start of the pandemic, the company shut down from March to May. When workers returned in May, Mercedes laid off all the temps. “That was like roughly a third of our workforce — just gone,” said Lett. “So because of that, Mercedes went from three shifts and combined them into two. They were assuming that the market demand was going to be lower.”

That didn’t happen. But instead of hiring more people, Mercedes tried to wring out more production from its reduced workforce. “They just tried to get the same output out of two shift people instead of three,” said Lett. “So you’re going from working roughly eight hours a day, five days a week, maybe a Saturday here and there to working 10-plus hours a day, roughly six days a week on a regular basis, with one weekend off a month.”

When the company tried to hire more people, they would leave just as soon as they started the job because of the exhausting demands. “We went from making maybe 300 cars a shift to making 430,” said Lett.

Supply chain snarls contributed to a chip shortage. But the Alabama plant was a moneymaker, Lett said, so the company closed other factories worldwide and had the chips sent to Alabama to keep up with the high demand.

The Mercedes plant is the most prominent exporter in Alabama’s auto industry; 100 or more supplier companies in the area employ thousands more workers. Its annual economic impact on Alabama was estimated at $1.5 billion in 2017.

These supply chain investments make anti-union threats of layoffs and a plant relocation less effective company talking points, because it’s less plausible to imagine Mercedes walking away from all this.

When you put Mercedes together with Honda in Talladega County, Hyundai in Montgomery, and Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, Alabama’s exports hit $27.4 billion in 2023, according to Made in Alabama, a pro-business website linked to the union-busting website Alabama Strong.

Mercedes workers build the luxury SUV models GLE and $170,000 Maybach GLS, and batteries for electric vehicles models EQE and EQS.

FLUCTUATING SCHEDULES

The productivity comes at a high cost to workers.

“For a lot of the workers at Mercedes, there isn’t a singular event that led up to the union campaign,” said Detrick Lewis, an assembly line worker in the body shop who has been here since 2014. “It’s kind of like a snowball at the top of the mountain. You don’t pay any attention to that small ball, but once it’s a giant boulder coming down, then it’s: how did it get so big?”

When Mercedes moved from three eight-hour shifts to two 10s or 12s, it eliminated the graveyard shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., which had allowed parents to plan around their children’s school schedules.

“Now a lot of workers — single mothers and fathers — weren’t able to find childcare because their schedules revolved around them working at night,” said Lewis. Parents had depended on the schedule over the past 10 years.

Jacqueline Johnson-Avery, an assembly worker in quality control with 25 years on the job, said she had preferred the overnight shift as better for childcare; it also paid more.

The changes haven’t stopped, and they’ve only grown more frequent and arbitrary. Workers say management has changed work schedules five times since the Christmas shutdown. The current schedule is six 10-hour shifts in a row, two days off, six more days on, then five days off (excluding Sundays). The result is only one Saturday off per month; workers used to get two. And most Saturdays will be paid at straight time; time-and-a-half kicks in only after 40 hours per week.

ACHING BODIES

Johnson-Avery said the preferred, lighter jobs aren’t assigned by seniority. Instead, many go to lower-paid temps who work for contractors (and weren’t eligible to vote).

In February the Department of Labor recovered $438,625 in back wages, unpaid bonuses, and damages for two workers who were fired after requesting family leave.

Injuries are common. Workers stand on their feet for 10 to 12 hours, without breaks for long stretches of time, while working at a pace of 72 seconds per car.

Garrard was a steelworker before he was hired at Mercedes in 2004. “I thought I was a pretty tough guy,” he said. “I did hard work. I came here and started turning little screws — hundreds of thousands of them a day. My hands have never hurt so bad in my life. I go home: I’m soaking hands in Epsom salts and hot baths.”

“We’re making high-end vehicles, and the company is pretending they can’t afford to give us raises and good health insurance,” said Lett. “The idea they’ll just nickel and dime us because we’re in a low cost of living area is a slap to the face. You guys made $18 billion with a ‘b’ in profits last year!”

FAVORABLE CONDITIONS

Nationally, the conditions are ripe for organizing: historically low unemployment, a tight labor market, high approval ratings for unions, a National Labor Relations Board that is following the letter of the law for once, and a reinvigorated labor movement that’s showing what union power can achieve.

The UAW in particular is riding a wave of momentum after winning landmark contracts at the Big 3 automakers last fall. The UAW spent $152 million on strike benefits for workers in 2023 — compared to the $116 million the entire labor movement spent in 2022, according to union researcher Chris Bohner.

Mercedes workers debated on Facebook the UAW’s April contract at Daimler Truck in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Mercedes is Daimler’s largest shareholder. After coming to the brink of a strike,​​ Daimler workers won a deal that ends wage tiers, boosts wages 25 percent over four years, adds a cost-of-living adjustment based on the formula of the Big 3 contracts, and creates, for the first time, profit-sharing.

Mercedes has made $156 billion in profits over the last decade, according to the UAW.

“You hear about what UPS Teamsters got in their contract, what the Big 3 auto workers won in their strike, you see what happened with Volkswagen in Tennessee, and Daimler Truck in North Carolina — these are all huge wins,” said Lewis.

“And people are seeing this and looking at their workplace. You come to work at Mercedes and their slogan is ‘The best or nothing.’ They carry that legacy of the best for everything, except for their workers.”

This story was originally published at Labor Notes.

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