Majority of Alabama Mercedes-Benz workers sign UAW union cards

VANCE, ALA.—In a potential breakthrough in organizing the South, and specifically for the United Auto Workers, a majority of the 6,000 workers at Mercedes-Benz’s first, and largest, U.S. plant have signed union election authorization cards.

Without UAW prompting, the workers made the announcement themselves at a short ceremony on February 29 near the plant in Vance, Ala., east of Tuscaloosa. They went public with their organizing drive two months ago.

If the workers win the unionization vote at the plant, where they make the Mercedes GLE, GLE coupé and GLS models, as well as the all-electric EQS SUV and EQE, it would be one of the biggest union wins in the union-hostile region—and especially in deep-red Alabama—in decades.

It also comes just after the new leaders of the UAW, fresh off of their big contract win over the Detroit-based car companies, committed $40 million over two years to new auto plant organizing.

UAW President Shawn Fain previously set a goal of unionizing the 150,000 U.S. auto workers in non-union plants. Those include Volkswagen in Tennessee, where the union said on February 8 it had a card majority in the 4,000-worker plant.

The Mercedes-Benz workers made clear they began the organizing themselves. Key issues were low pay, a two-tier pay scale and the company’s lie in promising to rehire laid-off workers after the 2008-09 Great Recession ended. It didn’t.

“A majority of our coworkers…have signed our union cards and are ready to win our union and a better life with the UAW,” said worker Jeremy Kimbrell, flanked by dozens of his colleagues.

“We haven’t taken this step lightly. For years, we’ve fallen further behind while Mercedes has made billions. After 2008 and 2009, some of our coworkers were forced to leave the company. Consecutive CEOs said they’d be brought back once things improved.

Never allowed to return

“Things did improve, but they were never allowed to return and were replaced within six months by temporary workers at half the pay. These same temporary workers then worked for up to eight years before receiving full-time jobs.

“Also during this time, our management gave us a 42-cent raise over a six-year period while making record profits. And these same record profits weren’t enough to prevent Mercedes from imposing an unfair two-tier pay scale just as our children were entering the workforce.”

Anticipating both corporate and political opposition, Kimbrell predicted pols “and their multimillionaire buddies…would say ‘Now is not the time.’” But the workers “learned we can’t trust Mercedes with our best interests. There comes a time when enough is enough. Now is that time.”

“This is our decision. It’s our life. It’s our community. These are our families. It’s up to us. It’s not up to Mercedes management or any politician or anyone else. We’re exercising our right to fight for a better life. And we won’t stop until we’ve made things right for the workers who build the cars and make the company run…Support our cause. Stand with us and join our movement.”

Mercedes-Benz has already started its anti-union campaign, with a mandated “captive audience” meeting where its U.S. CEO claimed the workers would do no better with the UAW than without it.

Right-wing Republican Gov. Kay Ivey denounced the unionization drive as soon as the majority was revealed. Unionizing, Ivey told the Alabama Chamber of Commerce, “is a threat” to the state’s economy. She previously called the UAW “an outside actor,” a common corporate lie about unions.

Former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, a beloved figure in the pigskin-mad state, addressed the workers the evening of February 29, at a company-sponsored forum. He’s a multimillionaire and owns several Mercedes dealerships in the South, the Alabama Political Reporter noted.

But when he coached, Saban supported advertisers paying players for use of their names, images and likenesses. The college athletic establishment fought that idea all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost. “Unionize it, make it just like the NFL,” Saban said of college football.

Two tweets just after 9 pm Eastern Time varied about what Saban told the workers.

“UPDATE: Nick Saban was honored for his coaching success and involvement with Mercedes, according to a source,” Luis Feliz Leon of Labor Notes tweeted. “He shared a few motivational words, but didn’t say anything anti-union.”

“You could write an entire book about this,” Alex Press tweeted about Saban’s speech, after she obtained a recording. “People are asking what I mean: The melding of motivational self-help axioms with mentions of his driving a Mercedes and owning Mercedes dealerships, all in service–whether he makes explicitly anti-union comments or not–of defeating an organizing drive. It’s a rich text.”

Press quoted Saban as adding, “’We wanted people on this team who were hard workers, who had a work ethic. You reap what you sow…There can be no great victories without overcoming adversity.’” Press then commented: “Idk (I don’t know), Nick. I can’t imagine a clearer case of overcoming adversity than these workers unionizing in Alabama.”

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


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.