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There’s Good News About the Labor Movement in the South

Yes, the United Auto Workers lost last week in Tuscaloosa. But you probably haven’t heard about the recent union victories in the region.

The Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Plant in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
The Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Plant in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama

Did you know that Jesus Christ didn’t want two Mercedes-Benz plants near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to unionize? Or anyway, the union was opposed by His representative on earth, the Reverend Matthew Wilson, pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Marion.

We know this because three days before the balloting began, Mercedes brought in the Reverend Wilson (who’s also a member of Tuscaloosa’s City Council) to have a little talk with workers. A video that the company texted to workers as voting began last Monday conveyed the views of this pious management stooge:

Do we want to allow a particular group to determine they have to go back and forth to negotiate something for us,or do we want to be able to go directly to the company? I need each of you to go to the polls and vote. May God bless you, and may God keep you, is my prayer. 

Thy will be done in earth. One week after the Reverend Wilson’s visit, the United Auto Workers lost its union drive, 44–56 percent. That was a setback for UAW President Shawn Fain’s audacious campaign to organize workers at 13 nonunion auto companies—10 foreign-owned, three domestic—many operating in the South. But it’s far from the rout portrayed in the mainstream press. The New York Times’ Jack Ewing called it a “stunning blow” that “will almost surely slow down the union’s campaign.” Here we have a fine example of “straight” news’s weakness for piling way too much analysis atop a single data point. An Associated Press headline reported initially that the UAW lost “overwhelmingly,” prompting me to question its math skills; later AP downgraded that to “decisive.” 

Shawn Fain’s UAW has gone to war, and in any war you have victories and defeats. Mercedes was a defeat. But given organized labor’s many past failures below the Mason-Dixon line, the victories are much more newsworthy. They will remain so until they become routine, as I believe they will. It took three tries for the UAW to win last month at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. The Mercedes vote was the first. It won’t be the last; the next vote could come as early as next year. In the meantime, on to Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, Alabama. As I’ll explain in a moment, other union news out of the South isn’t as dismal as some reports suggest.

But first, back to Mercedes. The Reverend Wilson’s anti-outsider theme is a familiar one in union drives, and although it often prevails I can never understand why, given that it’s voiced so frequently by … outsiders. On his visit to Mercedes’s auto plant in Vance, Alabama, and its battery plant in Woodstock, Alabama, the Reverend Wilson did not wear a dog collar, but neither did he wear coveralls and safety glasses—because he doesn’t work there.  

Neither does Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who in January wrote:

A national labor union, the United Automotive Workers (UAW), is ramping up efforts to target non-union automakers.… Do you want continued opportunity and success the Alabama way? Or do want out-of-state special interests telling Alabama how to do business?

Bear in mind that the “you” here was not the roughly 5,000 people who work at the two Mercedes plants but the roughly five million people who reside in Alabama. Southern Republican politicians like Ivey fight industrial union drives tooth and nail because they fear they will shift power to the Democrats, with whom organized labor is aligned. But Big Three auto plants in the South are already unionized. (The domestic companies Fain is targeting are Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid, whose plants lie mostly outside the South.) Various bus manufacturers have union plants down South too. Yet only Georgia has turned blue, and that may not last. Steve Silvia, an American University economist and author of the 2023 book The UAW’s Southern Gamble, told me last month he thinks the real reason Southern Republicans oppose the UAW so fervently is that their states throw so many subsidies at foreign automakers as inducements to locate there that “they feel a bit of ownership.” Think of it as a union-busting variation on state socialism. Since 1993, Alabama has subsidized Mercedes to the tune of about $238 million.

Mercedes fought the UAW much harder than Volkswagen did. The German manufacturer hired the union-busting firm RWP, whose website says: “From policy making to the shop floor, we know that third party interference makes business less productive and less competitive.” There’s that complaint again about outside agitators. In this instance it comes from a consulting firm situated 800 miles north of Tuscaloosa, in Washington, D.C.

Mercedes also fired or otherwise intimidated several union supporters, probably in violation of labor law, and it evangelized fervently against the UAW at multiple compulsory “captive audience meetings,” a tactic Jenifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, is trying to outlaw. One of the captive meetings featured Nick Saban, former football coach at the University of Alabama and, in Alabama, a bit of a holy man himself.

Mercedes’s most decisive move came late last month when it replaced Michael Göbel, its very unpopular chief of Alabama operations, with Federico Kochlowski, who immediately set about pressing the flesh and urging workers to give him a chance. But if Kochlowski really wanted to be a new broom, he should have endorsed the UAW drive; among other benefits, that would bring the wayward Alabama division in line with Mercedes’s Principles of Social Responsibility and Human Rights, which state: “In the event of organization campaigns, the company and its executives shall remain neutral.” Of course, Kochlowski didn’t do that. “People bought that bullshit about the new CEO,” David Johnston, a battery worker on the UAW organizing committee, told Labor Notes (which covered this contest better than anyone else).

As Göbel’s departure shows, even a failed union campaign tends to improve workers’ lives. In its desperation to head off the UAW, Mercedes management eliminated wage tiers after the number of workers who signed union authorization cards reached 30 percent, the threshold that allows an NLRB election to take place. The company also raised the top hourly pay to $34. Labor advocates are always saying the mere existence of unions improves working conditions in nonunion shops; this is what they mean.

I said there’s been some good news lately out of the South, quite apart from the UAW’s victory in Chattanooga and its defeat in Tuscaloosa. Workers who build trucks and buses for Daimler at four North Carolina plants, and at Daimler parts distribution centers in Memphis and Atlanta, last week won 25 percent pay increases in a new contract. The contract affects 7,400 workers (as against Mercedes’s 5,200), and Daimler was until three years ago a unit of Mercedes-Benz. But the news didn’t make anywhere near as big a splash as the Mercedes vote because the Daimler workers were already unionized, organized more than 20 years ago by the UAW. Still, it was a substantial victory, achieved by a workforce that threatened to walk off the job, inspired, according to Labor Notes, by Fain’s strike victory last fall over the Big Three automakers.

Another Southern union victory last week was the ratification of the first union contract at a bus manufacturing facility in Anniston, Alabama. This plant was much smaller—600 employees—but, like Volkswagen and Mercedes, it’s owned by a foreign company, New Flyer, based in Winnipeg, Canada. The union in this instance was the Communications Workers of America through its industrial division, the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE-CWA). IUE-CWA has also organized New Flyer factories in Minnesota, Kentucky, and New York. In Aniston, the new contract secured (among other benefits) pay raises of 15–38 percent, cost-of-living adjustments, and a larger company contribution to workers’ 401k retirement plans.

The Anniston factory was New Flyer’s only Deep South facility and therefore its last in the United States to unionize. The campaign took nearly 10 years, Ryan Masters, a New Flyer worker who’s on the bargaining committee, told me. The ball got rolling after Jobs to Move America, an alt-labor and civil rights group in California, sued New Flyer in 2018 for not reporting wages and benefits as required under its contract with Los Angeles County, which purchases buses from New Flyer. New Flyer settled, and eventually agreed not to oppose IUE-CWA in Anniston and to recognize the union voluntarily if it collected enough union authorization cards to compel a union election. That happened last summer, and after that, Masters told me, contract negotiations proceeded quickly. “Had this company been based in the South,” he said, “it would have been a lot tougher.”

Masters didn’t always favor unionizing the Anniston plant. “I was a straight ‘No’ to union when I first started learning about it,” he told me. “I felt like it was nothing but a greedy organization. I felt like they had lost their footholding in the North, and they just wanted to come down here and change it.” Masters changed his mind after he talked to IUE-CWA organizers and realized “all the union is is all the co-workers are staying together.… It’s not some kind of outside enforcer.” As for dues, Masters’s worries vanished when he found out how little he’d pay: $15.87 per week, or roughly the price of “a number one combo meal at McDonald’s, large size.” 

Alabama’s Governor Ivey has already taken steps to try to prevent a repeat of what happened in Anniston. On the day Mercedes workers started voting, she signed S.B. 231, which denies state subsidies to companies (like New Flyer) that recognize unions voluntarily.  “Alabama is not Michigan,” she said. “We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state.” It was that same “outsider” bullshit. As I explained last month, the law in question was crafted by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing nonprofit located in the suburbs of distant Washington, D.C. 

Ivey is right to be scared, because when somebody is presented with the facts, it isn’t that hard to persuade him that he’ll be better off joining a union. Self-interest does most of the work. The only reason labor unions struggle these days is that the 1935 National Labor Relations Act has been watered down over the years to favor the boss through legislation, court decisions, and decades of management impunity. “I’m sure at Mercedes,” Masters told me, “there were people who were browbeaten into ‘the union is bad.’” But, he said, “I feel like, they shouldn’t give up there. I think they need to have more time to organize a little bit. It’s tougher here in the South because that’s all we’ve ever known, is just union-busting.” Management won last week in Tuscaloosa, but sooner or later it will lose.