UAW’s Battle for the South Picks Up Steam

May 8, 2024
What went right for the union at VW in Chattanooga, and what’s happening now at Mercedes in Alabama.

The vote was expected to be close, but it wasn’t. Last month, manufacturing workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga Plant in Tennessee said “yes” to joining the United Autoworkers Union. Of the votes cast, 73% were in favor of unionizing. It was an especially satisfying victory for the UAW after two failed union elections at the plant, in 2014 and 2019.

The victory also further lifted the union’s profile and psyche. The UAW had never before succeeded in unionizing a foreign automaker’s U.S. operations in the South. It’s no accident that most of these automakers—VW, BMW, Hyundai, Nissan, Mercedes—located their U.S. headquarters in union-averse southern states. The few unionized automaker plants in the South belong to Ford and General Motors.

The Southern drumbeat began last fall. After the union’s stand-up strike at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis netted wage gains of 33%, eliminated wage tiers and restored cost of living adjustments lost during the Great Recession, UAW President Shawn Fain, a jeans-and-flannel-wearing electrician whose booming speech voice has a machine-tool rattle, declared that foreign automakers in the South were the union’s next target.

In a more complacent time, Fain might have come off as over the top, but with billionaires being made weekly while workers’ wages stagnate, cracks have widened between leadership and workers.

What Put the UAW Over the Top in Chattanooga

Silvia sees four reasons why the UAW succeeded in Chattanooga where it had failed before.

1. A change in leadership at VW’s joint works council in Germany, which represents workers and has four seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board. 

Why Has Union Support Increased at Mercedes Alabama?

Brett Garrard, a team leader in the battery plant and inbound logistics at Mercedes, Alabama, has worked there 20 years and been involved with union organizing since 2013. “This time we’ve got a little more momentum,” he says. Frustration has been building as Mercedes added wage tiers in 2020, with new hires receiving less, and pay that has not kept up with inflation.

From a 20-year perspective, the issues are the same,” he says. “We’ve been promised things by the company that haven’t come to fruition. We went nine years at one point with 43 cents total in raises. We weren’t keeping up with the cost of living. Our healthcare benefits have declined over the years—they’re continually getting worse.

“People have heard the same stories year after year, and we just—we’re not drinking the Kool-Aid, so to speak. We’ve seen it before, we’ve heard it before. We’ve decided it’s time to take control of our own destiny and have a voice and the new structure of the UAW is encouraging. And there’s strength in numbers. So we want to be recognized.”

Lee Adler, a labor attorney and lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), observed that although employment in automaker plants has historically been touted as “well-paying jobs” in the Deep South, “inflation has nibbled or taken a big chunk out of the advantage of those wages.”

After the stand-up strikes last September, Mercedes announced it was eliminating the wage tiers, but Garrard says the company hasn’t followed through on that promise. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International did not reply to IndustryWeek’s questions about the pay scale, instead responding with a statement:

MBUSI fully respects our Team Members’ choice whether to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure every Team Member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice.  

Silvia said that some at the Tuscaloosa plant also remain unhappy that Mercedes did not rehire employees that were laid off during the Great Recession.

“And there are more recent things. It used to be Mercedes paid compensation that was pretty close to the UAW contract. But they’ve let that slide in recent years..” And the two-tier pay structure instituted in 2020 “aggravated a lot of employees.” Mercedes got rid of the tiered wages after the UAW stand-up strike at the Detroit 3 automakers last fall, “but the damage was already done.”

Garrard said the employee-driven campaign this time has made a big difference. “Organizers from the UAW are there to support us, to give us information, give us guidance. But as far as all of the legwork and the faces that our employees and our co-workers see, it’s us. It’s not the UAW. They are supporting agents in helping us to form our union.”

What Is the UAW up against in Alabama?

“The political establishment has come down harder in Alabama than in Tennessee,” says Silvia, yet union representation is actually higher in Alabama—8.6%, compared to Tennessee’s 5.6% and South Carolina’s 3%.  

“There’s sort of a continuum when you look at the South,” Silvia adds. “Alabama is farther south. Alabama has a more active political establishment, but on the other hand Alabama does have some tradition of unionization, when steel was strong there in Birmingham. Those plants were unionized. Most of them are gone. But there are pockets of unionization.”

Mercedes, like Volkswagen, has a workers council in Germany, but its council is less empowered than Volkswagen’s. “At VW, the work council, they were influencing things,” Silvia says. “But at Mercedes, if anything the work council’s trying, but management has not been responsive. They’ve taken more of a traditional anti-union campaign set of measures and are coming down harder.

“We’ll see the extent to which that then influences workers,” he adds. “Some people react badly to that; some people go along with management. The one thing that I would say is even more pronounced that would suggest a union success [at Mercedes] would be the number of things that the Mercedes management has done to aggravate employees has been more than Volkwswagen.”

Garrard named a few of those aggravations. (Mercedes was given an opportunity to respond but has not).

  • When workers distribute union materials on their breaks, management will “come through our break area and snatch them off the tables, wad them up and throw them in the trash.”
  • “We have to sit and watch anti-union campaign videos every day after we clock in. ‘The lesson of the day’ is what my group leader calls it, and it’d be anything from, ‘If you join the union or if a union comes in here, your shop steward will know your health and your medical records’—false things like that. Or, ‘Here’s how much union dues will cost you. Do you really want to pay union dues?’ And at the bottom of every slide of every video, it says, ‘If you don’t want the union, Vote No.’
  • Morale on the shop floor “is at an all-time low. Everyone is so tired, it’s like banging your head against the wall,” Garrad says. “You want [the meetings] to stop, but you have to sit through it. They’re doing face-to-face captive audience meetings with anti-union propaganda. They’re doing private one-on-ones.”

Garrard said the five-minute pre-shift meeting covering daily activities at the plant that was once conducted by the group leader is now conducted by a higher-level manager. “Management has taken a very aggressive stance, as far as even out on the production floor going from station to station, pulling people off site and asking them, ‘How are you going to vote?’”

The harder the company pushes against the UAW, the more support Garrard senses from his co-workers. “On the 17th, when the votes are tallied, my comment would be, ‘Do you hear us now?’”


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