Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama to vote on joining UAW

VANCE, Ala.—Some 5,200 Mercedes-Benz workers in its Vance, Ala., factory complex will vote soon on whether to join the United Auto Workers, in the latest manifestation of the union’s strategy to break foreign “transplant” auto firms’ stranglehold on Southern workers.

The Alabama vote will follow the first move in that strategy: A vote April 17-19 at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., which employs 4,000. There, the union has taken the unusual step of filing labor law-breaking charges against VW not only in the U.S. but in its home nation, Germany.

After the union won resounding victories against the Detroit car companies—Ford, GM, and Stellantis, formerly FiatChrysler–it turned its eyes southwards. German, Japanese, and Korean transplants there employ most of the nation’s 150,000 non-union autoworkers, equal to UAW numbers at the Detroit 3.

Meanwhile, the phone has been ringing off the hook at Solidarity House, the UAW  headquarters in Detroit, with non-union auto workers calling to ask “How can I unionize?”

The flood began before UAW announced its $40 million two-year commitment to organizing the South. It started during UAW’s successful “Stand Up” rolling strike against the Detroit car companies, where the union won givebacks of almost all the concessions it had to make in pay, benefits, and pensions, over the last 15 years.

A big theme of that campaign was how the Detroit car companies piled up almost a quarter of a billion dollars in profits over those years, while workers’ pay, adjusted for inflation, declined—and while new workers at those firms actually earned less, in nominal dollars, than did their colleagues years before.

The same pattern’s happened at the U.S. transplants, including Mercedes, new UAW President Shawn Fain said. And UAW’s campaigns at VW and at Mercedes emphasized the transplants had profited as much and left their workers’ pay behind as much, as the Detroit car companies did.

“For centuries, the Southern economy has been a rigged game—a scheme designed to enrich a select few at the expense of the many,” Fain told the Mercedes-Benz workers.

“It’s a system where the wealthy and powerful have hoarded the wealth and monopolized the power. To the bosses and talking heads: Go ahead and cry your crocodile tears and rage against the inevitable. But know this: Southern workers are rising, and we won’t rest until justice is served.”

Mercedes measurement machine operator Jeremy Kimbrell, who has taken the lead for his colleagues in public statements at the Vance plant complex, declared—in a video UAW posted, too–that “We are standing up for every worker in Alabama.

“At Mercedes, at Hyundai, and at hundreds of other companies, Alabama workers have made billions of dollars for executives and shareholders, but we haven’t gotten our fair share. We’re going to turn things around with this vote. We’re going to end the Alabama discount.”

Assembly team member Moesha Chandler stressed health and safety on the job are also key drivers in the organizing campaign at the Vance plant complex. “I’m still young, but I’m already having serious problems with my shoulders and hands,” Chandler explained.

“When you’re still in your 20s and your body is breaking down, that’s not right. By winning our union, we’ll have the power to make the work safer and more sustainable.”

Mercedes KVP team member declared in the video that Mercedes “keeps losing good people because they force them to work Saturdays at the last second, to take shifts that mess with their family lives. And the only choice people have is to take it or quit. With the union, we’ll have a voice for fair schedules that keep workers at Mercedes.”

The anti-union campaign at Vance featured company lies about the union, orchestrated by its union-buster. It imported former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, a revered figure in the pigskin-mad state, to speak to the workers at a “captive audience” meeting, a common boss tactic usually filled with lies.

Social media accounts differed on what Saban, now a millionaire owner of several Mercedes dealerships, told the workers. One said he gave an anti-union pitch. Another said he was neutral but reminded the workers he had said collegiate football players should have the right to unionize, just like in the pros.

In an unusual move, the workers, backed by the UAW, filed a formal complaint in Germany against Mercedes-Benz before a new agency was established to monitor corporate violators of supply chain laws. If the violator’s suppliers or subsidiaries—such as the Vance plant—break tougher German laws on child labor, health and safety, and worker rights, the violator, not the suppliers, is fined 2% of its annual revenues. And that’s regardless of where the subsidiary or supplier is located.

On this side of the pond, UAW wants the National Labor Relations Board to seek a federal 10(j) injunction, its strongest sanction, against Mercedes, for illegal union-busting, and specifically for retaliating against two pro-union workers by denying them legally mandated family and medical leave.

The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division fined Mercedes in February $438,625 in “back wages, unpaid bonuses, equitable remedy, and liquidated damages” for breaking the FMLA. Both Lakeisha Carter and Al Ezell, both battery plant workers, were subsequently fired, and both linked the firings to their FMLA requests and their union support.

Carter was fired after Mercedes kept losing her FMLA paperwork when she had to take medical absences. Ezell was fired for having his cell phone on the factory floor—the first time Mercedes enforced its zero-tolerance policy against cell phones. Before that, his supervisor let Ezell have the phone on the floor so his doctor could call him to pick up his anti-cancer medication refills. He has stage four lung cancer “but my manager didn’t care,” he told UAW.

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.