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UAW Efforts to Organize Mercedes Workers in Alabama Have High Stakes

More than 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama are voting this week on whether to join the United Automobile Workers union, a decision that supporters and opponents say will have consequences far beyond two plants near Tuscaloosa where the German automaker produces luxury sport utility vehicles and batteries for electric cars.

Conservative political leaders have described the union drive to organize Mercedes workers as an attack by outsiders on the region’s economy and way of life. The vote tally is expected to be released Friday by federal officials.

Six Southern governors, including Kay Ivey, an Alabama Republican, issued a statement last month criticizing unions as “special interests seeking to intrude into our state and threaten our jobs and the values ​​we hold we live “. Alabama recently passed a law intended to discourage unionization.

For the union, a victory would add to a string of victories in the South, where unions are traditionally weak, and would give momentum to the UAW’s efforts to win over workers at other non-union automakers like Hyundai, Toyota , Honda and Tesla.

If the UAW loses, it could significantly slow union President Shawn Fain’s campaign to organize auto and battery plants across the country. The effort began after the union reached new contracts last fall providing big pay raises and other benefits for workers at General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram. .

In Alabama, which was a crucible of the civil rights movement, union organizers and supporters portrayed the Mercedes campaign as part of a decades-long struggle to dismantle an economic system based on the exploitation of the poor.

“You’re not just fighting for a union,” Archbishop William Barber II, an activist and professor at Yale Divinity School, told a group of organizers, workers and supporters at a Montgomery church on Monday. “You fight for justice.”

UAW supporters were optimistic as workers voted at a Mercedes auto plant in Vance, Alabama, and at a company-owned plant in nearby Woodstock that assembles batteries for electric vehicles. The National Labor Relations Board is overseeing the weeklong vote.

“I feel like we have the upper hand right now,” said Sammie Ellis, a union organizer who installs wiring in Mercedes vehicles. He spoke in front of a cluttered office near the Vance plant, where activists sat on folding chairs strategizing amid piles of signs with slogans such as “Mercedes Workers United” and “Put end rebates in Alabama.”

Alabama’s cut refers to what labor activists see as the state’s main attraction for investors: low wages and compliant workers. “They are taking advantage of the fact that Alabama workers live in worse conditions than workers in other parts of the country,” said Joe Cleveland, head of the local International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Anniston, Alabama.

Mercedes said in a statement that the company “has a proven track record of competitively compensating its team members and offering many additional benefits.”

Workers who have been with Mercedes for four years can earn $34 an hour, and some employees say they are grateful for how the company has treated them.

“Mercedes has done a lot for me,” Yolanda Berry, a team leader at the automaker, said in a video posted to X by Autos Drive America, an industry association that represents Mercedes and other foreign automakers with factories. in the USA. Ms. Berry said she made less than $14 an hour in a previous job.

The UAW is on a roll in the South after workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted in April to be represented by the union. Also that month, the union won significant wage increases for Daimler Truck workers in North Carolina. A victory at Mercedes, which became a separate company from Daimler Truck in 2021, would strengthen the union in its next campaign, organizing workers at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, about 100 miles south of Tuscaloosa.

The South Korean company produces SUVs at the Montgomery plant, including the Tucson and Santa Fe models. Union organizers are also targeting a Honda plant in Lincoln, Alabama, where the Japanese company makes SUVs and pickup trucks. But this effort is only just beginning.

On Monday, about 50 Hyundai activists and workers gathered at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery to sing union fight songs and hear Bishop Barber.

Paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Barber accused Southern political leaders of pitting races against each other. They fear that blacks “and poor whites would come together and form a voting bloc that would fundamentally reshape the economic architecture of the country and the state,” he said.

Opposition to the union from Alabama’s Republican political leaders was intense. After comparing the UAW to “leeches,” Nathaniel Ledbetter, Republican Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, helped pass a law that denies state funding to companies that voluntarily recognize unions.

The law won’t directly affect Mercedes’ vote, but it reflects the alert state of Republicans closely tied to business interests and their determination to halt union gains. Ms. Ivey signed the bill on Monday.

“Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs at risk,” Ms. Ivey said in a statement she released with the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, all Republicans.

Mr. Ledbetter and Ms. Ivey’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

A union campaign at the Hyundai plant in Alabama in 2016 failed, but activists say things have changed. “The first time, people were easily intimidated and scared by anti-union tactics,” said Quichelle Liggins, who has worked at the Hyundai plant for 12 years. “This time we are ready.”

In an apparent effort to blunt the appeal of a union, Hyundai was one of several automakers to raise workers’ wages after the UAW secured gains for members at Ford, GM and Stellantis. The increases at Hyundai, announced in November, amount to 14 percent from the previous year, according to the company.

But pay isn’t the only issue for many autoworkers in Alabama. Ms. Liggins, a single mother of two, said she hoped a union would protect people like her from long hours and unpredictable work schedules. “A manager told me my job was more important than my family,” she said.

In a statement, Hyundai said: “We are deeply committed to supporting quality jobs with competitive wages and industry-leading benefits. »

Mercedes, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, is accustomed to dealing with unions in its home country, where by law half of the company’s supervisory board represents employees. But in Alabama, the company opposed the union drive. The UAW even accused the company of using illegal tactics.

The UAW filed six unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes with the labor relations board, saying the company disciplined employees for discussing unionizing at work, blocked organizers from distributing union materials, monitored workers and fired workers who supported the union.

Mercedes denies these allegations. The company “did not interfere with or retaliate against any team member in their right to union representation,” it said in a statement, adding that it “strongly denies making any decision unfavorable employment based on union affiliation.

Mercedes has also raised wages in recent months and worked to notify workers more in advance of schedule changes, workers said. But Mr Ellis, the campaigner, said the improvements had only come about “because of the union knocking on the door”.

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