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UAW to be put to the test this week in Alabama Mercedes-Benz union vote

Mitchell Hartman May 13, 2024
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Above, people celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

UAW to be put to the test this week in Alabama Mercedes-Benz union vote

Mitchell Hartman May 13, 2024
Heard on:
Above, people celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
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Following a big union win at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee last month, United Auto Workers union now faces another major test of its Southern organizing strategy.

Starting Monday, around 5,200 workers at a Mercedes-Benz assembly-and-battery complex near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will begin voting on whether to join the UAW.

Other unions are also trying to make inroads in the region, known for its right-to-work laws and historical resistance to unions.

I was changing planes in Atlanta — on my way to cover the UAW in Alabama — when I started hearing about unions trying to organize more workers in the South from airport wheelchair attendant Ka-Ron Jones, who was hanging out by my gate while I got my scruffy shoes shined.

“The cleaning companies, all the restaurants, Popeyes — we’re trying to make sure everybody gets unionized. Because everybody’s not getting paid what they should be paid,” Jones said.

There are efforts to organize workers at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama.

But the point of the spear is the United Auto Workers’ $40 million campaign to unionize foreign-owned assembly plants across the South, said Harry Katz at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“A lot’s at stake — whether they can use the momentum from the VW vote to win at Mercedes and then try and organize other transplants,” he said. “But they’re going to face strong resistance by management.”

There’s been plenty of that at Mercedes in Alabama, said Jeremy Kimbrell, a 24-year veteran autoworker and leader of the UAW’s “Vote Yes” campaign.

Jeremy Kimberll, a middle-aged man in a blue shirt and white pants, sits in a neutral yellow-painted room.
Jeremy Kimberll is a 24-year veteran autoworker at Mercedes-Benz and a leader of the UAW’s “Vote Yes” campaign at UAW Local 112. (Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace)

“Every day, every supervisor has a meeting with their work group and either shows a video or reads off a card and tells the workers why they don’t need a union,” he said.

One such Mercedes-Benz video sounds like this: “During a strike, employees don’t get paid by their employer. And in the state of Alabama, striking employees don’t get unemployment.”

Mercedes-Benz didn’t comment for our story. Anti-union workers I spoke to say their top pay is comparable to UAW workers in the North and that they don’t need representation.

The message that unions aren’t welcome and might drive top employers out resonates with the region’s anti-union, right-to-work politics, per Cornell’s Harry Katz.

“There’s not a strong collectivist culture,” he said. “Workers don’t have experience with unions, family members that have been union members.”

Jeremy Kimbrell, though, does. And that’s one reason he’s been at the forefront of repeated union drives at Mercedes.

“Boils down to being raised by a dad who was in unions,” he said. “I know what the benefit of a union is. And if you’re not sitting down at the table and then agreeing to a binding contract — very doubtful you’re getting your best deal.”

The better deal Kimbrell wants is the lucrative pay and benefits autoworkers recently won at GM, Ford and Stellantisafter strikes and hardball negotiations led by a reinvigorated UAW.

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