A Loss at Mercedes-Benz Slows U.A.W.’s Southern Campaign

After suffering a setback at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama on Friday, the United Automobile Workers union’s efforts to organize other Southern auto plants are expected to slow and may struggle to make progress.

About 56 percent of Mercedes workers who voted rejected the UAW in the election after the union scored two major victories this year. In April, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted to join the union, the first large, non-union auto plant in the South to do so. Weeks later, the union negotiated a new contract bringing significant wage and benefit improvements to its members at several North Carolina plants owned by Daimler Truck.

“Losing at Mercedes is not the death of the union,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of social studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It just means they will have less confidence in moving on to the next factory.” The UAW is here for the long haul. I don’t think they’re going to stop just because they lost here.

Since its founding in 1935, the UAW has almost exclusively represented workers employed by the three Michigan-based automakers: General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler, which are now part of Stellantis. And it has long struggled to make headway at factories owned by foreign manufacturers, particularly in Southern states where anti-union sentiment runs deep.

Workers at the Volkswagen plant had twice voted against UAW representation, by narrow margins, before the union’s recent victory. A decade ago, an effort to organize one of Mercedes’ factories failed to muster enough support for an election.

Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that large-scale unionization efforts rarely go smoothly. In the 1930s, the UAW gained recognition at GM and Chrysler but struggled at Ford, which continued to employ non-union workers for some years.

“I have no doubt that they will continue to organize and eventually try to organize another vote,” he said.

In its past efforts in the South, the union was hampered by a negative image, which may also have played a role in the UAW’s loss at Mercedes. For years, Michigan’s three automakers have cut jobs and closed factories, in part because of inflexible and costly labor contracts. The union has also been hit by corruption cases that have put several former high-ranking officials, including two former UAW presidents, behind bars.

Alabama business leaders led a campaign against the UAW that was based in part on the claim that the union was responsible for Detroit’s decline. In an opinion essay published in January in The Alabama Daily News, Business Council of Alabama Executive Director Helena Duncan said the state would suffer the same fate if workers voted for the union.

“Much of the decline that exists in the Motor City today results from the untenable demands the UAW placed on its automakers, a reckless decision that sent countless jobs to law-and-order states. work like ours and crippled a once great economy. metropolis,” Ms. Duncan wrote.

A year ago, the union elected a new president, Shawn Fain, who was untouched by corruption scandals and pledged to take a more aggressive approach in contract negotiations. Then, last fall, the union obtained substantial gains in wages and benefits during negotiations with Detroit automakers, after targeted strikes lasting around 40 days. Hundreds of Southern auto workers began reaching out, asking for help organizing their nonunion plants. The UAW responded by announcing it would spend $40 million on organizing drives over the next two years.

“I’m not afraid at all,” Mr. Fain said Friday in Alabama after the union lost the Mercedes vote. “I believe workers want unions, I believe they want justice, and we’re going to continue to do what we can. »

In a statement, Mercedes highlighted its direct relationship with workers and said it looked forward to ensuring the company was “not only their employer of choice, but also a place they would recommend to their friends and to their family.”

The union said it plans to focus its organizing efforts on another Alabama plant: a Hyundai plant in Montgomery. But organizing that factory will likely be even more difficult than the campaign against Mercedes factories, said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry.

The UAW had allies in Volkswagen and Mercedes. Unions are powerful players in Germany, where these two companies are based. Under German law, worker representatives must occupy half of the seats on a company’s supervisory board, the equivalent of an American board of directors.

Volkswagen and Mercedes both have groups called works councils through which managers and employees discuss and negotiate workplace issues and production plans. In its campaign at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, the UAW had the support of the company’s works council and IG Metall, the powerful union that represents all German auto workers.

The UAW won’t have that kind of support at Hyundai’s Montgomery plant, Mr. Gordon said. “In general, Korean automakers have a more adversarial relationship with unions than German automakers,” he said. “Korean companies are less accustomed to sitting together in a conference room with unions. »

Last year, weeks after the UAW won wage and benefit increases from the three Michigan-based automakers, Hyundai announced it would sharply raise its workers’ wages over the course of for the next four years – a move widely seen as an attempt to dampen workers’ interest in joining the UAW

“The decision to be represented by a union rests with our team members,” Hyundai said in a statement.

The Montgomery plant makes two popular sport utility vehicles – the Tucson and Santa Fe – and employs about 4,000 people. A previous UAW campaign to organize the plant in 2016 failed without being put to a vote.

Last fall, the union announced plans to target factories owned by 10 foreign automakers – Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda and Volvo – and others owned by Tesla, based in Texas. , and two small electric vehicle startups, Lucid and Rivian, both based in California.

U.S. factories owned by these foreign and U.S. companies employ nearly 150,000 workers in 13 states, the union said.

In Alabama, however, the UAW faced perhaps a more hostile environment than anywhere else. While campaigning at Mercedes, Governor Kay Ivey spoke out against the union and led a group of six Southern governors, all Republicans, who issued a letter suggesting that unionization could cause automakers to displace jobs outside their states. A top Alabama politician called the UAW “leeches.”

Mercedes brought in Nick Saban, the popular former University of Alabama football coach, to speak to workers in an effort to persuade them to vote against the UAW.

Unions are traditionally seen as a Northern institution and are often tied to the civil rights movement, which alienates many people in Alabama, Mr. Gordon said. “It’s a very difficult place for the UAW,” he said.

That antipathy could also make it difficult for the UAW to negotiate contracts that guarantee its members raises and other gains, even if it wins union votes. Lawmakers opposed to unions could pressure employers not to make big concessions in negotiations.

Mr. Fain and the UAW have argued that unions are the best way for workers to demand higher wages as automakers experience strong sales and profits in North America.

Public support for unions is stronger than it has been in years, including in the South. This year, 600 workers at an electric bus plant in Alabama voted to join the Communications Workers of America union. A week ago, they negotiated a new contract that included salary increases and improved benefits.

The UAW and other unions have also benefited from the support of President Biden, who last fall, they joined striking auto workers on a picket line in Michigan. The union supported Mr. Biden in this year’s election.

But that close association with the president could also hurt the UAW, conservative workers in a Southern state who favor Mr. Biden’s opponent, former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Fain and Mr. Trump have often criticized each other, but polls have shown that a significant minority of union households support the former president.

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Sara Adm

Aimant les mots, Sara Smith a commencé à écrire dès son plus jeune âge. En tant qu'éditeur en chef de son journal scolaire, il met en valeur ses compétences en racontant des récits impactants. Smith a ensuite étudié le journalisme à l'université Columbia, où il est diplômé en tête de sa classe. Après avoir étudié au New York Times, Sara décroche un poste de journaliste de nouvelles. Depuis dix ans, il a couvert des événements majeurs tels que les élections présidentielles et les catastrophes naturelles. Il a été acclamé pour sa capacité à créer des récits captivants qui capturent l'expérience humaine.
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