Fain: Despite Mercedes loss, UAW to keep campaigning in the South
UAW President Shawn Fain following a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024. AP Photo/Kim Chandler

VANCE, Ala.—Despite an election loss at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., Auto Workers President Shawn Fain says the union will continue to campaign there and to keep organizing at other “transplant” foreign auto firms throughout the union-resistant South.

Complete but unofficial returns showed UAW lost by a 44%-56% margin, garnering 2045 votes to 2642 for “no union.” The Alabama loss comes after the union broke through, on its third try, at another Southern “transplant,” the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Each factory is the largest one for that automaker in the U.S. UAW won the Chattanooga vote by a 3-to-1 ratio. Despite the numerical loss in Alabama, UAW President Shawn Fain touted gains the workers won as Mercedes scrambled to combat the union campaign. Desperate to head off a union victory, Mercedes made major concessions to the workers just before the election.

They include the abolition of the company’s two-tier wage system—a key win for UAW in its earlier Stand Up campaign against the Detroit automakers—and Mercedes’ removal of its U.S. CEO, “who didn’t care” about the workers.

And then the company urged the workers to give that CEO’s successor a “chance.” Another key factor in the defeat of the union, according to Fain, was the “more aggressive” anti-union activity by Mercedes than the anti-union activity carried out by Volkswagen bosses last month.

“They had captive audience meetings” right up until the eve of the three-day vote, Fain said at a May 17 press conference. “They brought in outsiders, they were firing workers, and they were threatening workers.

“Both the U.S. and the German governments are investigating” Mercedes’s labor law-breaking at the Vance plant, Fain said. “We intend to follow that process through.

“This is a David and Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war. “

Fain did not say whether UAW would formally ask the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the voting results and order a rerun election at Vance due to the firm’s violations, formally called unfair labor practices.

The German government is investigating Mercedes under a new statute which legalizes such probes of a company’s subsidiaries and suppliers, even if they’re not in Germany, for breaking that republic’s much more pro-worker labor laws.

“This is a fight we had to take on” to lift the living standards not just of the Mercedes workers in Alabama but of other oppressed and exploited workers in the union-hostile South, and not just in the auto industry, Fain said. The union has campaigns going in South Carolina, Tennessee (again), and Georgia, but Fain did not identify the corporate targets of those drives.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler was optimistic about the future fight at Mercedes in particular and the South in general, despite the result. And she lauded the Mercedes workers.

“They put their heart and soul into the fight to join a union, resisting every union-busting tactic in the book—and they made huge strides,” Shuler said. Like the VW workers, the Mercedes workers “built a foundation that will only grow stronger in the coming months.

“Mercedes claimed to be neutral—but they were anything but. They held captive-audience meetings where they propagated lies and threats, fired their U.S. CEO, and brought in a pastor to dissuade workers from joining the union.” Republican Alabama “Gov. Kay Ivey and her anti-worker corporate allies fought this vote tooth and nail,” Shuler said.

An oppressive history

“That obstruction is part of a long oppressive history in the South, from slavery to Jim Crow ‘right to work’ laws to prison labor. But today, young, Black, Brown, and women workers in the South are writing a new chapter and building a new economy—one that lifts up workers rather than exploits them.

“The entire labor movement sends a clear message to Mercedes workers today: We have your back. We are investing resources to support new organizing and infrastructure to build power with workers and communities to deliver for families across the South. We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mercedes workers, UAW, and President Shawn Fain as they move forward.”

Like the VW workers in Chattanooga, the Mercedes workers at Vance came to the UAW for help and organizing aid after the union achieved massive gains in its rolling “Stand Up” strikes against the Detroit auto firms, Ford, GM and Stellantis, formerly FiatChrysler.

Those gains not only abolished the two-tier wage systems, but ensured workers could move to top-scale pay faster, increased pensions, and restored 15 years of prior wage losses since the financier-caused 2008 Great Recession sent GM and FiatChrysler into bankruptcy reorganization. Those gains also improved health care and added other benefits.

About the only goal UAW didn’t achieve in the Stand Up strikes was a 32-hour workweek for 40 hours pay. Auto workers, both at the Detroit 3 and at the transplants, routinely work 60, 70, or 80 hours weekly, the union says. That includes weekends.

Fain used the press conference about the vote to once again point out hurdles and hoops and outright lies workers face when they try to unionize anywhere in the U.S. Already weak U.S. labor laws have become even more loophole-ridden since the National Labor Relations Act’s enactment in 1935, thanks to Republican-majority Congresses and corporate lawsuits in courts.

That has led organized labor to make comprehensive labor law reform its #1 congressional priority, through enactment of the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act. It would abolish captive audience meetings, and impose higher fines for illegal firings, discipline, and other labor law-breaking.

It would also legalize card-check recognition of a union when independent outside verifiers report more than half a plant’s workers signed NLRB union election authorization cards. Lack of card check gives bosses a chance to mount intensive—and lie-filled—anti-union campaigns.

“This is a fight all of labor has to take on,” Fain added. “These workers” at the Vance plant “work hard. They deliver. They make a quality product and we’ll keep supporting them.”

Fain, an Indianan, quoted a fellow Hoosier, the late and famed college basketball coach John Wooden, to explain why UAW would continue its campaign to organize the transplants in the sports-mad South. UAW budgeted $40 million for the first two years of that effort.

“John Wooden said ‘Success is peace of mind. But success is never final and failure is never fatal.’

“We’ve been here before and we’ll be back in Vance. It’s about” curbing income and wealth inequality through unionizing “and bringing justice all over America.”


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.