Workers fight for their union at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama
United Auto Workers union supporters attend a May 4, 2024 rally in Birmingham, Ala. | Kim Chandler / AP

TUSCALOOSA. Ala.—Following hundreds and hundreds of organizing conversations among Mercedes-Benz auto workers, who are sick and tired of poor treatment, the United Auto Workers (UAW) is set for an election at the sprawling auto plant.

The vote, which comes on the heels of a huge victory at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is scheduled for May 13-17. A victory here will signal a huge shift in the balance of forces in the deeply anti-union South.

“When we get our union in here, I think people will once again look at Mercedes and say, it’s not just another job, it’s a career job. It’s a job where generations will want to come and work,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, a measurement machine operator at Mercedes.

Workers are facing union busting ahead of the vote next week. Mercedes in Tuscaloosa is shamelessly disregarding democracy and the fundamental rights of workers, attempting to influence the upcoming vote in order to intimidate the auto workers into voting against the union.

Ahead of the election, workers reported that the company had a pastor, Rev. Matthew Wilson, who is on the Tuscaloosa City Council, speak at the plant to encourage them to give the new CEO, Federico Kochlowski, a “chance.” They also woke up on the first morning of voting to text messages of a union-busting video featuring Rev. Wilson, Labor Notes reported.

The concentration of union workers is strongest in the Northeast, the Pacific Coast, and the Great Lakes States. It is in the South, particularly in Alabama, where union density is lower, leaving workers in a precarious position and left vulnerable to being more exploited by big business.

“I feel like we’re living to work when we should be working to live. I started as a temp making $17.50 an hour. I’m full time now, but I’m still living paycheck to paycheck,” said Moesha Chandler who works assembly at the Tuscaloosa plant.

Recently, six Southern governors, among them Alabama’s Kay Ivey, openly criticized the union in a joint letter, claiming that unions like the UAW “endanger” the racist system they associate with the “Southern way of life.” It is worth noting that all of these elected officials are white Southern Republicans.

Shawn Fain, newly elected president of the Autoworkers, said about the governors, “They’re liars. The people who are doing the misleading are them,” not the union. Fain said the governors “are showing that they’re just puppets for corporate America, and they don’t give a damn about working-class people. They don’t care about the workers being left behind even though the workers are the ones who elect them.”

The UAW has tried to organize the Mercedes factory before, including a drive in 2014. However, no past efforts have made it as far as the current one. Largely credited to the recent success of the Stand-Up Strike—which saw the tier system abolished, wages increased for all workers by at least 25%, and some workers doubled their pay—the new-look UAW is appealing to workers who are looking for a union that’s unafraid to confront the bosses.

Kay Finklea, a long-time quality inspector at the plant said that she “has seen so many changes, but not for the better.” Before management at Mercedes would give the impression that they cared, but now “they don’t even pretend.

“The wages, the long hours, the disrespect, it just adds up. We need to make a change for the better at Mercedes. We should be able to work, make decent money and spend time with our families.”

Mercedes employees Austin Brooks, David Johnston, and Jacob Ryan attend a rally in Tuscaloosa, Ala., May 5, 2024. | Kim Chandler / AP

Pay and benefit stagnation mentioned

Union supporters have mentioned pay and benefit stagnation, uncertain shift scheduling, and the use of temporary workers as issues driving their fight for the union. Although autoworkers in the region typically earn above the median household income, wage growth has come to a standstill.

From 2002 to 2019, real wages for plant employees dropped by 11%. A recent report highlighted that workers in Alabama earned less than autoworkers in other states. It also revealed disparities in pay for Black workers, Latino workers, and women in the automotive industry within Alabama.

“After 18 years, I’ve gained a total of five dollars an hour. And people coming up have it worse,” Derrick Todd told UAW organizers. “We topped out in two years. Now it’s three years, and some people go through a temp agency for years before they even get on the pay scale.”

Pointing to the extreme disparity in pay between workers and corporate executives, Todd said that, “Mercedes executives get bonus checks that are bigger than our salary. That’s not fair. We need to stand up and make things right at Mercedes.”

Alongside workers at Mercedes, employees at Hyundai in Alabama have initiated a union organizing campaign, with more than 30% of the workforce having signed union authorization cards. The UAW has made it known that it intends to organize all non-union auto plants in the area.

“We don’t win by playing defense or reacting to things. We don’t win by playing nice with the boss. We don’t win by telling our members what to do, what to say, or how to say it. We win by giving working-class people the tools, inspiration, and courage to stand up for themselves,” said Autoworkers president Shawn Fain.

In a show of solidarity with the organizing campaign, IndustriALL has sponsored an effort to support a YES vote and welcome the Mercedes workers in Tuscaloosa to the UAW.

Already, some trade unions around the world have answered the call. In Bangladesh, garment workers sent a video of solidarity saying: “Don’t fear the management. Make the management fear union power!”

In Germany, Metalworkers and German Works Council leaders, who represent a million auto workers at 30 companies, sent solidarity greetings. In Zimbabwe, the Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union shared a video encouraging workers at Mercedes to vote yes to join the UAW, saying: “We say no to union busting! And we welcome U.S. members to our large global union family!”

To support, workers all over the world can print out a UNION YES poster, hold it up and record a short video, voice support for a yes vote, and welcome the workers to the union movement. Videos can be tagged to the UAW and the campaign encourages people to end the message with “Roll tide!” a reference to the Alabama college football team.

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Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.