May 20, 2024 - Business

Why the UAW lost the vote in Alabama

 Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Plant located in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama

The Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The United Autoworkers' winning streak ended late Friday when a majority of workers at a Mercedes manufacturing campus in Alabama voted against unionizing.

Why it matters: The South, typically hostile ground for organized labor, has become critical for the UAW's future — and this could be a meaningful bump in the road.

  • Much of the investments into electric vehicle and battery factories are flowing to Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — and the union wants to represent those workers, as Jack Ewing points out in the New York Times.

The big picture: The defeat follows a string of victories for the UAW, including favorable contracts after a strike against the Big 3 automakers last year, and an April vote by Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., to join the union.

  • The big question heading into Friday's vote: Was the Chattanooga win a fluke or part of a trend in which the UAW is finally breaking into the South?
  • Given defeat, now the question is "How much does this loss change the dynamic?" says Sharon Block, a professor at Harvard Law and former National Labor Relations Board official.

What they're saying: The UAW says it isn't going away. The union has pending charges against Mercedes for unfair labor practices in the U.S. and filed another complaint over worker rights violations in Germany, under a new global supply chain law.

  • "This is a David and Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war," said UAW president Shawn Fain in a statement.
  • "Our goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible Team Member had the opportunity to participate in a fair election," Mercedes said in a statement after the vote, which was overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. (The NLRB has not yet formally certified the election results.)

Zoom in: While Volkswagen largely stayed out of the way in the run-up to the union election in Tennessee, Mercedes waged an aggressive anti-union campaign.

  • That included showing videos warning about union failures and how dues are spent, as well as holding small group meetings with employees urging them to vote no, NPR reports.
  • They also made some moves to appease workers, including replacing a top executive who wasn't liked and eliminating a two-tier wage system.
  • Republican politicians aggressively opposed the vote, too.
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