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A view shows the exterior of the Mercedes automotive plant in Vance, Alabama, US. File photo: NORA ECKERT/REUTERS
A view shows the exterior of the Mercedes automotive plant in Vance, Alabama, US. File photo: NORA ECKERT/REUTERS

Vance, Alabama — The United Auto Workers failed in its effort to organise a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, but the loss on Friday was a good result for a first effort in a historically anti-union state, labour professors and analysts said.

Employees at the Vance, Alabama, plant voted 56% against joining the union. Until the UAW won overwhelmingly last month at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, the union had repeatedly failed to organise a foreign-owned carmaker in the region for its nearly 90-year existence.

However, the defeat at Mercedes does not preclude the UAW from trying to organise other plants in the south, or eventually trying again at Mercedes, said Peter Bible, a former General Motors executive who was involved in labour talks with the UAW.

“They’ll be back,” he said, adding that the UAW attracted more votes than he expected given the plant’s location in the south.

Worker uncertainty over the car industry’s transition to electric vehicles will only provide more opportunities for the union, Bible added.

The UAW earlier this year committed $40m to organising more than a dozen nonunion carmakers, including Toyota and Tesla. Widening its reach beyond the Detroit carmakers is critical for the UAW to maintain its influence within the industry.

At Mercedes, a strong anti-union campaign from the German carmaker and southern politicians swayed some to vote against the UAW, workers said. Six US governors, including Alabama’s Kay Ivey, signed a letter asking workers to reject the UAW. They said unionisation would stunt the car industry’s growth across the south.

However, Harley Shaiken, a labour professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that the UAW lost twice at VW in Tennessee before finally winning handily. The result at Mercedes was similar to an earlier loss at VW in 2014, when 53% voted against the union.

UAW president Shawn Fain, speaking after the loss, did not outline the union’s next steps, but signalled it’s not the end of its efforts. The union and its representatives previously cited organising progress at a Hyundai plant in Alabama, and Toyota plants in Missouri and Georgetown, Kentucky.

David wins

“We left nothing on the table,” Fain said at a UAW union hall near Vance. “There’s no regrets in this fight.”

“This is a David and Goliath fight,” he added. “Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war.”

The UAW called for the election after it said a supermajority of workers signed cards supporting the union, but it clearly lost support in the run-up to the vote.

Jay White, a Mercedes employee in Alabama for 18 years, said he believed the union overestimated its support. The anti-union campaign picked up steam in the past few weeks as those opposed handed out flyers and spoke individually to their co-workers, he said.

“I just want the best for our team members, our company, and for our jobs,” White said.

In a region where two-to-one losses are regular, the Mercedes vote was a good first step, said Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University who has published on the UAW’s past organising campaigns in the south.

In 2017, Nissan workers at a plant in Mississippi rejected the UAW by a wide margin. Outside the car industry and the UAW, in 2021 workers at an Amazon.com warehouse in Alabama voted against forming a union by a more than two-to-one margin. Despite the closer loss at Mercedes, organising in the south will still be tough, analysts said.

Including the Mercedes plant, there are more than 10 nonunion assembly plants in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee alone, with such carmakers as Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Volvo, Hyundai, Kia and VW.

The Mercedes loss is one of the first major setbacks for Fain, who was elected the UAW’s chief in March 2023. The firebrand leader, who spent much of his career as an electrician for Chrysler — now a part of Stellantis — narrowly won the post in the union’s first direct election.

Despite the loss at Mercedes, it remains a good time for labour organising in the US given greater public support for unions, said John Logan, a labour professor at San Francisco State University.

“I don’t think we will be waiting a year before the next election in the south,” he said. “It will be another hard battle.”

Reuters

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