Union-busting tactics behind union loss at Mercedes

Pro-union Mercedes workers rally before the union representation election.

After polls closed on the morning of May 17, United Auto Workers supporters learned they had lost the representation election at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama. About 90% of workers eligible to vote took part in the election, with 56% of them voting against the union.

After the tremendous win for the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee — a 72% vote for UAW representation announced April 19 — Mercedes bosses were determined not to see a repeat at their U.S. plant. The vote against the union, even after a majority of Mercedes workers had signed cards in favor of UAW representation, was impacted by the company’s “carrot-and-stick” tactics designed to sway voters’ minds. 

The “carrot” tactic was employed in the form of a sudden pay increase for all workers and the elimination of pay tiers, which separate workers doing the same work into higher-paid and lower-paid employees. In addition, Mercedes fired its CEO of U.S. operations. The new CEO, Federico Kochlowski, roamed the plant in the weeks leading up to the election, shaking hands and appealing to workers to give him a chance.

The “stick” involved firing union supporters, along with mailings, signs and banners, daily in-plant videos, and mandatory captive audience meetings with intimidating messages. Mercedes contracted with the professional union-busting consultant firm RWP.

Alabama politicians, including Gov. Kay Ivey, echoed the company’s propaganda claims that workers would somehow be better off without a union. A local minister joined in the chorus of lies. “Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW,” Ivey wrote after the election results became known.

The struggle continues

The UAW has filed Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and the German government is investigating the Stuttgart-based company for violations of German labor laws. Because of Mercedes’ illegal union-busting, it’s possible that the NLRB will order a rerun of the May 13-17 election. If not, the UAW can file for a new election in May 2025.

The issues that led about 70% of Mercedes workers to sign union cards — including overloaded jobs and mandatory 10-12 hour shifts — are not going to vanish. In any case, the 2,045 union supporters who voted “yes” are not about to throw in the towel. “We’ll try to figure out how to shore up for the next time. Because there will be another time. We’re not just going to shrug and walk away,” said battery worker Robert Lett. (Labor Notes, May 17)

In a statement posted on the UAW website, International President Shawn Fain said: “The UAW will continue to lead the fight against corporate greed and runaway inequality. And through that fight we’ll change the nation and the world for the better.” (uaw.org

Only 7.5% of workers in Alabama belong to a union, compared to 23% in Hawaiʻi and 20% in New York, the states with the highest union density. A union win at Mercedes, like that at VW, will go a long way in the difficult but necessary struggle to unionize the U.S. South.

Martha Grevatt has been a UAW member since 1987.

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