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Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama vote to join the UAW. Here are the issues for the country’s workers.

Thousands of Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama are voting for a union this week, marking a major test for the United Auto Workers, just one month after a decisive victory in neighboring Tennessee.

The UAW faces a tougher fight this time because Mercedes-Benz has waged an anti-union campaign, trying to dissuade workers and tip the scales, experts told ABC News.

A victory would have significant implications, redoubling the union’s momentum as it seeks to organize a series of additional plants across the South, where autoworkers have struggled to gain a foothold for decades, they said .

However, a loss could scare away workers at other facilities and derail the union’s success.

Here are the issues for autoworkers and the broader labor movement:

Can the UAW maintain its momentum and unionize more automakers?

This week’s union vote, involving about 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is the latest sign of the UAW’s momentum since union members went on strike against the Big Three American automakers last fall.

The high-profile standoff contributed to billions of dollars in losses for businesses and put thousands of workers temporarily out of work. But the gamble paid off, helping the union achieve historic wage gains and other long-sought reforms.

The breakthrough sparked a wave of UAW organizing, the union says. More than 10,000 non-union auto workers have signed cards supporting the UAW in recent months and organizing drives have broken out at more than two dozen plants, the union said in a statement in March.

Last month, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to join the UAW by an overwhelming majority of 2,628 votes to 985. The victory marked the South’s first auto plant to unionizing through a vote since the 1940s.

“To see Tennessee make history all the way down South, it’s big,” Sammie Ellis, 35, an assembly worker for Mercedes-Benz at the union-supporting Alabama plant, told ABC News . “It sends a clear message.”

A union, Ellis said, would offer better benefits and wages, as well as “total respect for employees.”

In addition to the Alabama plant, the UAW aims to unionize 12 facilities across the South, Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University and author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble,” told ABC News.

“The question is whether the UAW will be able to maintain its momentum,” Silvia said.

Can unions win in big companies against an anti-union campaign?

The union campaign in Alabama poses several challenges to the UAW’s recent victory in Chattanooga, including the presence of an anti-union campaign, experts say.

The circumstances touch on a question that has dominated the labor movement in recent years: Can unions win in large workplaces, such as Amazon warehouses or auto factories, if they face opposition from an employer?

In April 2022, workers at an Amazon warehouse employing 6,000 people formed America’s first-ever union at the company, although no other warehouses have unionized since. On the other hand, Starbucks workers have managed to unionize around 400 of the company’s stores, the number of which varies but which generally employ around 30 employees.

PHOTO: UAW President Shawn Fain attends a meeting of United Auto Workers (UAW) members in Belvidere, Illinois, November 9, 2023.

UAW President Shawn Fain attends a meeting of United Auto Workers (UAW) union members in Belvidere, Illinois, November 9, 2023.

Léa Millis/Reuters

In Chattanooga, Volkswagen took a neutral stance toward the union, declining to offer an opinion on whether workers should organize. In contrast, Mercedes-Benz undertook a coordinated effort to dissuade workers from supporting the effort, Ellis said.

Facility officials put out flyers, wore hats and handed out napkins all bearing the same message: “Vote no,” according to Ellis.

“They are voting heavily no,” Ellis added.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, Mercedes-Benz said in a statement that it supports workers’ rights to determine whether they want union representation.

“Mercedes-Benz US International (MBUSI) fully respects our team members’ choice to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure that every team member has the opportunity to vote by secret ballot, as well as to have access to the information necessary to make an informed choice,” said a company spokesperson.

“We believe that open and direct communication with our team members is the best path forward to ensure continued success,” the spokesperson added.

Asked about the implications for unions seeking to organize large workplaces in the face of employer opposition, Art Wheaton, director of social studies at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said: “If they win, it will help to get things done. »

What message will the UAW send to the broader labor movement?

In recent years, the American labor movement has gained popularity and made headlines with high-profile strikes, but it has failed to increase the proportion of workers in unions.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans approve of unions, according to a Gallup poll last year, putting union popularity at its highest level since 1965.

However, union membership has declined. Only 10% of U.S. workers were unionized last year, a figure that was little changed from the year before, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure marks a sharp decline from the peak of almost 25% reached in the 1950s.

A victory at the Alabama plant could show that unions’ resurgent popularity and activism can translate into membership gains, Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University, told ABC News.

“Perhaps this suggests that there is more momentum toward unionization than we have seen in the past,” Katz said.

Ellis, a Mercedes-Benz employee in Alabama, said he hoped a victory would show workers that unions are helping to pave their way to a decent livelihood.

“These people will be able to come into these factories and learn skills that will give them high pay, great benefits and allow them to take care of themselves and their families,” Ellis said.

ABC News

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