UAW’s stinging loss in Alabama won’t kill national organizing effort

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ANALYSIS-UAW’s stinging loss in Alabama won’t kill national organizing effort

By Nora Eckert

VANCE, Alabama, May 17 (Reuters) The United Auto Workers failed in its effort toorganize a Mercedes-Benz MBGn.DE plant in Alabama, but the loss on Friday was a good result for a first effort in a historically anti-union state, labor professors and analysts said.

Employees at the Vance, Alabama, plant voted 56% against joining the union. Until the UAW won overwhelmingly last month at a Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE plant in Tennessee, the union had repeatedly failed to organize a foreign-owned automaker in the region for its nearly 90-year existence.

However, the defeat at Mercedes does not preclude the UAW from trying to organize other plants in the South, or eventually trying again at Mercedes, said Peter Bible, a former General Motors GM.N executive who was involved in labor talks with the UAW.

“They’ll be back,” he said, adding that the UAW actually attracted more votes than he expected given the plant’s location in the South.

Worker uncertainty over the auto industry’s transition to electric vehicles will only provide more opportunities for the union, Bible added.

The UAW earlier this year committed $40 million to organizing more than a dozen non-union automakers, including Toyota 7203.T and Tesla TSLA.O. Widening its reach beyond the Detroit automakers is critical for the UAW to maintain its influence within the industry.

At Mercedes, a strong anti-union campaign from the German automaker and southern politicians swayed some to vote against the UAW, workers said. Six U.S. governors, including Alabama’s Kay Ivey, signed a letter asking workers to reject the UAW. They said unionization would stunt the auto industry’s growth across the South.

However, Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that the UAW lost twice at VW in Tennessee before finally winning handily. The result at Mercedes was similar to an earlier loss at VW in 2014, when 53% voted against the union.

UAW President Shawn Fain, speaking after the loss, did not outline the union’s next steps, but signaled it’s not the end of its efforts. The union and its representatives previously cited organizing progress at a Hyundai 005380.KS plant in Alabama, and Toyota plants in Missouri and Georgetown, Kentucky.


“We left nothing on the table,” Fain said at a UAW union hall near Vance. “There’s no regrets in this fight.”

“This is a David and Goliath fight,” he added. “Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war.”

The UAW called for the election after it said a supermajority of workers signed cards supporting the union, but it clearly lost support in the run-up to the vote.

Jay White, a Mercedes employee in Alabama for 18 years, said he believed the union over-estimated its support. The anti-union campaign really picked up steam in the last few weeks as those opposed handed out flyers and spoke individually to their co-workers, he said.

“I just want the best for our team members, and for our company, and for our jobs,” White said.

In a region where 2-to-1 losses are regular, the Mercedes vote was a good first step, said Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University who has published on the UAW’s past organizing campaigns in the South.

In 2017, Nissan 7201.T workers at a plant in Mississippi rejected the UAW by a wide margin. Outside the auto industry and the UAW, in 2021 workers at an AMZN.O warehouse in Alabama voted against forming a union by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Despite the closer loss at Mercedes, organizing in the South will still be tough, analysts said.

Including the Mercedes plant, there are more than 10 non-union assembly plants in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee alone, with such automakers as Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Volvo, Hyundai, Kia and VW.

The Mercedes loss is one of the first major setbacks for Fain, who was elected the UAW’s chief in March 2023. The firebrand leader, who spent much of his career as an electrician for Chrysler – now a part of Stellantis STLAM.MI – narrowly won the post in the union’s first direct election.

Even with the loss at Mercedes, it remains a good time for labor organizing in the United States given greater public support for unions, said John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University.

“I don’t think we will be waiting a year before the next election in the South,” he said. “It will be another hard battle.”

Reporting by Nora Eckert; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Peter Henderson; Editing by Leslie Adler

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