UAW, Mercedes-Benz, and unions’ fight for the South

Workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama are on their last day of voting for a UAW union. Here’s why it matters.

Volkswagen workers and labor organizers hold up a UAW flag.

Volkswagen workers and labor organizers at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images Sam Delgado is a Future Perfect fellow writing about labor and food systems, public health, and literacy.

It’s been another big week for the UAW.

Over 5,000 auto workers at the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Vance, Alabama, have been holding their union election vote with the United Auto Workers (UAW); ballots will be counted when voting closes today.

It’s the UAW’s second election in their campaign to organize non-union auto workers, with a particular focus on the South — a notoriously difficult region for union drives. They won their first election with Volkswagen workers last month in Tennessee with 73 percent of workers voting to form a union.

What makes the UAW’s recent success compelling is that they’re finding big wins at a time when union membership rates in America are at an all-time low.

But each union drive is a battle: With our current labor laws, unionizing is not an easy process — particularly when workers are up against anti-union political figures and employers, as is the case at the Alabama Mercedes plant.

So if the UAW can win another union election in a region that’s struggled to realize worker power, it could mean more than just another notch in their belt. It could offer lessons on how to reinvigorate the American labor movement.

What’s at stake in Vance, Alabama?

Unionizing nearly anywhere in the US will require some sort of uphill battle, but this is especially true for the South. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most of the South had unionization rates below the national average in 2023. Alabama resides within one of those regions, at a union membership rate of 7.5 percent compared to a national rate of 10 percent.

This is the result of historical realities (see: slavery and racist Jim Crow laws) that have shaped today’s legislation: Alabama is one of 26 states that have enacted a “right-to-work” law, which allows workers represented by a union to not pay union fees, thus weakening the financial stability and resources of a union to bargain on behalf of their members.


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Prominent political figures in Alabama have been vocal about their opposition to the UAW, too. Gov. Kay Ivey has called the UAW a “looming threat” and signed a bill that would economically disincentivize companies from voluntarily recognizing a union.

Workers say Mercedes hasn’t been welcoming to the union, either. In February, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz US International held a mandatory anti-union meeting (he’s changed roles since then). Back in March, the UAW filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Mercedes for “aggressive and illegal union-busting.” And according to a recent report from Bloomberg, the US government voiced concerns to Germany, home of Mercedes-Benz’s headquarters, about the alleged union-busting happening at the Alabama plant.

The combination of weak federal labor laws, a strong anti-union political presence, and a well-resourced employer can be a lethal combination for union drives and labor activity — and have been in Alabama. Recent examples include the narrow loss to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse, the nearly two-year long Warrior Met Coal strike that ended with no improved contract, and even past failed unionization drives at this Mercedes plant.

Mercedes is also not the only auto plant in the state. Other foreign car manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and Hyundai also have factories in Alabama, and the UAW plans to unionize them too. What happens at the Mercedes plant in Vance will likely influence what happens at the other auto plants — win or lose.

Where’s this momentum coming from — and where is it going?

The UAW is in a strong position after a series of wins. First they won their contract battle with Detroit’s Big Three automakers last year. Then they successfully unionized the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in mid-April (the first time a non-union auto plant in the South was unionized in around 80 years). Later that month, they ratified a contract with Daimler Trucks after threatening to strike, securing a wage raise and annual cost-of-living increases among other benefits. Where are these wins coming from?

A big part of the momentum comes from Shawn Fain, the president of the UAW. He’s ambitious and a hard-nosed negotiator, isn’t afraid to break from the traditions of UAW’s past, and perhaps most importantly, is also the first leader of the UAW directly elected by members.

The direct election came after several high-ranking members of UAW leadership were investigated for corruption in 2017 and were later convicted. Fain was a part of a slate called “Members United” that ran on a “no corruption, no concessions, no tiers” platform, supported by the reform caucus within the UAW. By a slim margin of 483 votes, Fain ousted the incumbent in a run-off election.

This new prioritization of democracy in the UAW can even be seen in its campaign to unionize Southern auto workers. In an article from Labor Notes, Mercedes workers at the Vance, Alabama, plant said that past unionization drives with the UAW failed partly because union organizers interfered too much with worker-to-worker organizing. This time, the workers say they are leading the union campaign, while the UAW supports as needed.

Today’s election may seem difficult to win, considering the South’s past and present. But the UAW’s recent success shows that difficult is not impossible. Fain and his reform slate taking over the UAW, the historic contracts from striking at the Big Three, and the win in Chattanooga — all of those things seemed impossible a little over a year ago. This week, they might defy the odds again. Even if they don’t, there’s a lesson here for reviving unions in the US: be bold, and let workers lead the way.

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.


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