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Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama vote against joining UAW, a blow to union’s expansion in the South

Written by on May 17, 2024

(TUSCALOOSA, Ala.) — Thousands of Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama voted against joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) on Friday, delivering a significant defeat for the union one month after it prevailed at a Volkswagen facility in nearby Tennessee.

Workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama cast ballots against joining the union by a margin of 2,642 to 2,045, or 56% to 44%, the National Labor Relations Board said.

The result hinders the UAW’s momentum as it seeks to organize additional plants throughout the South, where it has struggled for decades to gain a foothold.

Analysts expected a difficult contest at the Alabama Mercedes-Benz facility because the company conducted an anti-union campaign, whereas officials at Volkswagen had remained neutral toward worker organization efforts.

Still, the union’s landslide victory last month at a Volkswagen facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee came as a surprise to many observers. The breakthrough marked the first car plant in the South to unionize with a vote since the 1940s.

In both recent campaigns, the union faced stiff opposition from local elected officials. Six Southern governors, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, both Republicans, issued a statement last month condemning UAW organization efforts in the region.

“We want to keep good paying jobs and continue to grow the American auto manufacturing sector here,” the governors wrote. “A successful unionization drive will stop this growth in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers.”

In recent months, UAW officials have touted an aggressive campaign to expand the union’s membership. Over 10,000 non-union auto workers have signed cards in support of the UAW, and organizing campaigns have begun at more than two dozen facilities, the union said in a statement in March.

The burst of activity followed a high-profile strike carried out by UAW workers against the Big Three U.S. automakers last fall: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, formerly known as Chrysler.

The standoff contributed to billions of dollars in losses for the companies and put thousands of workers temporarily out of work. But the gamble paid off, helping the UAW achieve historic wage gains and other long-sought reforms.

In recent years, the U.S. labor movement has grown in popularity and made headlines with attention-grabbing strikes, but it has overall failed to increase the share of the national workforce that belongs to a union.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans approve of unions, a Gallup poll last year showed, putting the favorability of unions near its highest level since 1965.

Still, union membership has declined. Only 10% of U.S. workers belonged to unions last year, which is little changed from the year prior, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed. However, that figure marks a steep drop from a peak of nearly 25% in the 1950s.

The UAW’s defeat in Alabama on Friday amounts to a missed opportunity for membership gains, since a vote to join the union would have added about 5,000 workers to its membership rolls. The UAW presently has declares a membership of roughly 400,000 workers.

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