May 16, 2024 - Business

UAW hoping for snowball effect as Mercedes-Benz workers take union vote

Illustration of the UAW logo repeating in concentric circles

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The UAW is hoping for a snowball effect in a place where it rarely snows in real life: the South.

Why it matters: On Friday we'll find out whether the UAW has prevailed in its campaign to unionize its second plant in as many months in the South, where anti-union sentiment and pro-business laws often undermine organizing efforts.

Between the lines: More than 5,000 workers at the Mercedes-Benz manufacturing campus in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, are eligible to vote on whether to join the UAW.

  • The National Labor Relations Board expects to announce results of the vote Friday afternoon.
  • A simple majority of workers who cast ballots is enough to certify the union, though the company could legally challenge the results.

Context: The UAW scored a history victory in April when Volkswagen's factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, became the first non-Detroit Three auto assembly plant in the U.S. to be unionized.

  • "It's time to take control of our own destiny — we're next," Brett Garrard, who has worked at the Mercedes site for two decades, tells Axios. "This week is our defining moment."
  • "People are tired of not making enough money, people are tired of the benefits being horrible, we're tired of the fact that our work-life balance is awful, we're tired of the favoritism," Kay Finklea, a quality inspector at the site and a member of the UAW's voluntary organizing committee in Tuscaloosa, tells Axios. "We're just tired."

Friction point: The UAW has accused Mercedes of unfair labor practices, saying the German automaker has intimidated workers into voting against the union.

  • But a Mercedes spokesperson said in a statement that the company "fully respects our Team Members' choice whether to unionize" and that the company provides a "safe and supportive work environment" in which "open and direct communication with our Team Members is the best path forward to ensure continued success."

Zoom out: Republican opposition in Alabama has been pointed — particularly from Gov. Kay Ivey, who signed a bill this week that would strip tax incentives from companies that voluntarily recognize unions.

  • "We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state," Ivey said, reported.

State of play: Handicapping the race is difficult, but the UAW prevailed by a wide margin in Chattanooga — 73% yes, 27% no — and analysts say union support tends to grow as victories pile up.

  • "In the labor context, victories are really contagious," Columbia University public affairs professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez tells Axios. "When workers win, it inspires other workers to take action of their own."

Context: Volkswagen and Mercedes are among the 13 non-Detroit Three automakers the UAW is targeting for unionization.

  • The union has also launched organizing campaigns at Toyota, Tesla, Hyundai and other automakers.

The bottom line: "What's at stake with this vote is it would prove what happened at Chattanooga wasn't a one-off," Harvard Law School professor and Center for Labor executive director Sharon Block tells Axios. "One is an anecdote. Two is starting to look like data — it's starting to look like a pattern."

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