Workers at Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama reject union after months-long campaign

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


Workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, voted Friday to reject a union after a months-long campaign to organize the plant.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversaw the election, said 2,045 workers (44%) voted for the union, while 2,642 workers (56%) voted against it.

The results, the first setback for organized labor after a string of recent victories dating back to last fall, came after an intense battle between the United Auto Workers, who have tried to unionize the plant for decades; Mercedes-Benz, which opposed it, and Alabama state officials and business groups, who waged an aggressive anti-union campaign. The “no” comes after state leaders advocated against the union amid a series of labor victories nationwide.

“Our goal throughout this process was to ensure every eligible Team Member had the opportunity to participate in a fair election,” wrote MBUSI in a news release with the vote outcome. “We thank all Team Members who asked questions, engaged in discussions, and ultimately, made their voices heard on this important issue.”

Workers who supported the union said they had concerns about work-life balance, pay, benefits and policies, such as a doctor’s note not excusing time off when a worker is out of days.

Rick Webster, a two body panel adjuster, told reporters ahead of the vote counts becoming public on Friday that he hoped a union would allow employees to negotiate on an equal playing field.

“We’ll be able to sit down at the table with the company, and we will be able to negotiate what we need as workers and not have it dictated to us by the company,” he said.

He also said that if the union vote fell short, supporters would try again.

As the votes rolled in, pained sounds came from people in the room as the vote count swung to “no’s” as the votes came in chunks throughout the day. The early vote counts did not look favorable for unionization.

Near the end of count, the running vote totals on the white board were changed to “ONWARD!”

The vote at Mercedes, whose arrival in Alabama in 1993 is credited with creating the state’s automotive industry, was the first defeat for organized labor after a string of victories.

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to unionize in April. UAW won a major strike against the Big Three automakers last year, and secured a contract with 25% wage increases at Daimler Truck earlier this month.

Volkswagen employees had first rejected the union in close votes in 2014 (712 yes’s to 626 no’s) and 2019 (833 no’s among around 1,600 who voted), according to the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively.

Drew Hall, team lead in the paint shop at Volkswagen in Chattanooga drove down with his wife, Kristina Hall in support of the drive on Friday.

Hall, who was also involved in the 2019 Volkswagen union drive, said that it was “exhilarating” after the more recent vote.

“The amount of time that you’ve actually put into it that once it’s over and done with all you want to do is cry,” he said ahead of the vote counts becoming public.

The UAW has tried to organize the plant for years, but none have made it as far as the current effort. While the wages had stagnated, autoworkers still make more on average than others in the state. Workers who did not state support of the union told the Reflector at a recent shift change that they were not sure where they would find better work.

The union drive has faced push back from state leaders, with both Gov. Kay Ivey and the Business Council of Alabama opposing the union.

Ivey recently signed legislation sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would require companies to forfeit state economic incentives if they voluntarily recognize unions.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, Ivey called the automotive industry a “crown jewel” industry in the state and wrote that she was grateful for the companies.

“The workers in Vance have spoken, and they have spoken clearly!” she wrote. “Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW. We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election.”

A message was left with BCA Friday morning.

In February, the UAW said that a majority of the workers had signaled support for the union. The union called for a vote in April and had previously said that they would call for a vote when 70% of workers had signaled support for the union, though they did not disclose their level of support at the time.

A November report from the progressive non-profit organization Alabama Arise found that wage growth had stalled for the workers. The report found that real wages had declined 11% from 2002-2019 and that Alabama workers made less than autoworkers in other states. Hispanic, Black and women workers also made less on average.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

This story is republished from the Alabama Reflector, a sister publication to the Kentucky Lantern and part of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.

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