May 23, 2024

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The UAW’s effort to organize Mercedes workers in Alabama has high risks

The UAW’s effort to organize Mercedes workers in Alabama has high risks

More than 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama are voting this week on whether to join the United Auto Workers union, a decision that supporters and opponents alike say will have consequences far beyond the two plants near Tuscaloosa where the German automaker produces Luxury sports cars and SUVs. Batteries for electric cars.

Conservative political leaders have portrayed the union campaign to organize Mercedes workers as an assault by outsiders on the region’s economy and way of life. Federal officials are expected to announce the vote tally on Friday.

six Southern rulersKay Ivey, a Republican from Alabama, issued a statement last month criticizing unions as “special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values ​​we live by.” Alabama recently passed a law aimed at discouraging union organizing.

For the union, a win would add to a string of victories in the South, where organized labor has traditionally been weak, and provide momentum for UAW efforts to win over workers at other non-union automakers such as Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and Tesla.

If the UAW loses, it could slow a campaign by union president Sean Fine to organize auto and battery plants across the country. Those efforts began after the union last fall reached new contracts with significant wage increases and other benefits for workers at General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram.

In Alabama, a crucible of the civil rights movement, union organizers and supporters described 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 the union,” Bishop 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’re fighting for justice.”

UAW supporters were optimistic as workers cast ballots at a Mercedes auto plant in Vance, Alabama, and at a company-owned plant in nearby Woodstock that assembles battery packs for electric cars. The National Labor Relations Board oversees the week-long ballot.

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“I feel like we have the upper hand now,” said Sammy Ellis, a union organizer who installs wiring in Mercedes cars. He spoke outside a crowded storefront office down the road from the factory in Vance, where activists sitting in folding chairs sketched strategy amid stacks of signs bearing slogans like “Mercedes United Workers” and “End Alabama Discount.”

The Alabama discount is a nod to what union activists say is the state’s main attraction for investors: low wages and compliant workers. “They’re coming to take advantage of conditions that Alabama workers have worse than workers in other parts of the country,” said Joe Cleveland, an official with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers local in Anniston, Ala.

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

Workers who work at Mercedes for four years can earn $34 an hour, and some employees say they are grateful for the way 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 by Autos Drive America, an industry association that represents Mercedes and other foreign automakers with factories in the United States. Ms. Berry said she earned less than $14 an hour at a previous job.

The UAW began to emerge 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 pay raises for Daimler Trucking workers in North Carolina. A win at Mercedes, which becomes a separate company from Daimler Trucks in 2021, would boost the union in its next campaign, organizing workers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, about 100 miles south of Tuscaloosa.

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

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

Paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Barber accused Southern political leaders of pitting races against each other. He said they feared that blacks “and poor whites would band together and form a voting bloc that would fundamentally reshape the economic structure of the country and the state.”

Opposition to the union by Alabama’s Republican political leadership was intense. After likening the UAW to “Leeches“, Nathaniel Ledbetter, Republican speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, helped pass a law that would deny government funding to companies that voluntarily recognize unions.

The law will not directly affect Mercedes’ vote, but it reflects unease among Republicans with close ties to business interests and their determination to halt union advances. Ms. Ivey signed the bill into law on Monday.

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

The offices of Mr. Leadbetter and Ms. Ivey did not respond to requests for comment.

A union drive at a Hyundai plant in Alabama failed in 2016, but activists say things have changed. “The first time around, it was easy to intimidate and intimidate people with anti-union tactics,” said Koeshel Liggins, who worked at the Hyundai plant for 12 years. “This time we are ready”

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In an apparent attempt to dilute the union’s appeal, Hyundai was one of several automakers that raised workers’ wages after the UAW won gains for members at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Hyundai’s increases, announced in November, were 14 percent compared to the previous year, according to the company.

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

“We are deeply committed to supporting high-quality jobs that pay competitive salaries and offer industry-leading benefits,” Hyundai said in a statement.

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

The UAW filed six counts of unfair labor practices against Mercedes with the Labor Relations Board, saying the company disciplined employees for discussing unionization at work, prevented organizers from distributing union materials, conducted worker surveillance and fired workers who supported the union.

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

Mercedes has also raised wages in recent months and made an effort to give workers more notice about changes to their schedules, the workers said. But Mr Ellis, the activist, said the improvements only came “because the union knocked on the door”.