UAW loses Alabama union vote seen as bellwether for organizing autoworkers in the South

Workers at two Mercedes-Benz factories in Alabama have voted against joining the United Auto Workers, the largest autoworkers union in the U.S., a blow to an effort to strengthen the presence of organized labor in the South.

The Friday vote was seen as a bellwether for the ability of newly resurgent labor groups to successfully organize in a part of the country known for keeping union activity at bay.

The final count was 2,045 in favor and 2,642 against, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

In remarks following the vote, UAW President Shawn Fain praised the workers as ‘courageous’ but acknowledged the outcome as a ‘setback.’

‘They want justice. They lead us, they lead this fight. And that’s what this is all about,’ Fain said, adding the workers already won key concessions from Mercedes in the run-up to the vote.

‘Justice isn’t just about one vote or one campaign. It’s about getting a voice and getting your fair share,’ Fain said.

In a statement, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. said it was pleased that its workers were able to participate in a fair election.

‘We thank all Team Members who asked questions, engaged in discussions, and ultimately, made their voices heard on this important issue,’ the company said, adding: ‘We look forward to continuing to work directly with our Team Members to ensure MBUSI is not only their employer of choice, but a place they would recommend to friends and family.’

Republican officials led a vigorous campaign opposing the organizing effort. In the run-up to Friday’s vote, six Southern governors, all Republicans, led by Alabama’s Kay Ivey, warned about “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by.”

Alabama state lawmakers also passed a measure to deny state funding to companies that voluntarily recognize unions. The Republican speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, Nathaniel Ledbetter, has referred to the UAW as ‘a dangerous leech.’

“The forces opposing workers who want to organize a union are powerful and relentless, especially in the American South,” said Seth Harris, a law and policy professor at Northeastern University who previously served as President Joe Biden’s top labor policy adviser.

In a statement following the vote, Ivey praised the outcome.

“The workers in Vance have spoken, and they have spoken clearly!’ she said. ‘Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW.’

The UAW is also in the process of organizing a Hyundai factory in Montgomery, Ala., and recently won a union vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. It also scored new pay raises for other workers across the South employed by Daimler Truck, after those workers threatened to strike.

“The UAW’s organizing drive among nonunion auto workers will continue, and they will have other successes building on their victory at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but these election results show us that it is going to be a lengthy struggle in which workers will win some battles and lose some others,” Harris said.

Organizers had accused Mercedes of underpaying its workers, and the UAW filed multiple unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

In response to an inquiry from NBC News, Mercedes declined to comment on its pay structure but said that it ‘has a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits.’

It also said it had not interfered with or retaliated against any worker in their right to pursue union representation, and that it was fully cooperating with authorities. 

‘Our primary focus at MBUSI is always to provide a safe and supportive work environment for our Team Members, so they can continue to build safe and superior vehicles for the world,’ the company said.  ‘We believe open and direct communication with our Team Members is the best path forward to ensure continued success.’

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