Auto Workers: UAW “loss” at Alabama Mercedes is not end of story
UAW President Shawn Fain, center, speaks with Mercedes workers in Alabama. The union is fighting to overturn an election loss which it notes resulted from violations of law by the company. | Kim Chandler/AP

VANCE, Ala.—The Auto Workers formally petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the union’s election loss at the Mercedes-Benz auto factory in Vance, Ala., and order a rerun election. They contend company labor law-breaking prejudiced the vote results.

“Over 2,000 Mercedes workers voted yes to win their union after an unprecedented, illegal anti-union campaign waged against them by their employer,” the UAW said. The unofficial final tally showed UAW losing to “no union,” 2042-2645 (44%-56%).

The union filed the complaint with the NLRB the day after its loss at the “transplant,” one of many foreign automakers’ plants deliberately located in the anti-union, worker-hostile South.

“Let’s get a vote at Mercedes in Alabama where the company isn’t allowed to fire people, isn’t allowed to intimidate people, and isn’t allowed to break the law and their own corporate code, and let the workers decide,” the UAW stated.

NLRB Communications Director Kayla Blado told Alabama media the Birmingham office of the labor board will investigate the complaint and decide whether and when a hearing should occur on the labor law-breaking charges.

UAW’s Mercedes unionization drive is part of its overall two-year $40 million campaign to break the bosses’ stranglehold on 150,000 non-unionized autoworkers nationwide, most of them in the South.

That number is roughly equal to the UAW membership at the three Detroit-based automakers, Ford, GM and Stellantis, formerly FiatChrysler.

Push to break anti-union stranglehold

In turn, the UAW’s campaign to break the Southern stranglehold on workers is a spearhead of the labor movement’s wider goal to organize the South and bring its workers into unions and their living standards up to those of the rest of the country.

That’s important because the South is the fastest-growing and still most-oppressive region of the U.S. Its suppression of workers, its politicians’ willingness to pit white workers against workers of color and its exploitative history all attract U.S. as well as foreign firms.

In its campaign at Mercedes’ Vance plant, the UAW pointed to the huge wins, under new activist President Shawn Fain and his reform-slate board, that it gained in recent pacts with the Detroit 3.

Those wins, including rollbacks of 22 years of wage givebacks, faster ascent to top-scale jobs, better pensions and abolition of the hated two-tier wage system, contrast with the lower wages and lousy working conditions—and lack of job protection—at Mercedes and other “transplants.”

Mercedes’ labor law-breaking charges, formally called unfair labor practices, include illegal discipline of workers for discussing unionization, banning union materials and paraphernalia from “neutral” areas such as bulletin boards and lunchrooms, illegally firing union supporters and illegally forcing pro-union workers to take drug tests.

Mercedes also illegally forced workers to sit through so-called “captive audience” meetings where workers, under threat of discipline–up to and including firing–for not attending, must listen to anti-union harangues and outright lies from bosses, their hired union-busters, or both.

Mercedes’ “general goal” was to coerce and intimidate workers, preventing them from freely voting for or against the union—the right the National Labor Relations Act commands.

Mercedes also brought in political heavyweights, led by right-wing Gov. Kay Ivey, R-Ala., to castigate unionization as a threat to jobs. Ivey and five other Southern governors signed a similar anti-UAW and anti-union manifesto just two months before, immediately preceding the unionization election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It didn’t work. On the union’s third try in Chattanooga, UAW won in a landslide.

The NLRB isn’t the sole labor board probing Mercedes’ conduct in Vance. Germany, where Mercedes is headquartered, recently passed a law extending probes of German labor law-breaking to a German company’s suppliers and subsidiaries, regardless of their location.

German labor law is much tougher on law-breakers than U.S. labor law, and the new German board charged with such probes has taken on Mercedes’ conduct in Vance as its first high-profile investigation. UAW filed a complaint there, too.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.