UAW loses unionization vote at Mercedes factories in Alabama

Tuscaloosa, Ala. Workers at two nearby Mercedes-Benz factories voted Friday against unionizing with the United Automobile Workers, a stunning blow to the union’s campaign in the traditionally weak South.

The defeat came after Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, and other Republican leaders argued that a pro-union vote would stifle the investment that has made the state a major automaker. Hyundai and Honda also have large factories in Alabama, which the UAW is trying to organize.

The vote gained national importance as a test of whether the UAW can build on a string of recent victories and win in a state where elected officials are hostile to organized labor. The union has said it wants to organize every automobile factory in the U.S., expanding its membership to include workers at companies like Toyota and Tesla.

But a loss at the Mercedes plants would certainly slow the union’s campaign and force it to do more to win over workers’ support before holding elections at other car plants. Union leaders will want to spend time figuring out how best to counter the messages and tactics of local lawmakers and company executives.

“Losing hurts, no doubt,” Elizabeth Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, said Friday. “But we don’t see it as a loss but as a temporary setback. The workers will persevere no matter what they take.

Mercedes workers voted 56 percent to 44 percent against unionization, according to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election. Nearly 4,700 votes were cast, representing a majority of the 5,075 employees who were eligible to vote.

Auto executives and conservative lawmakers will closely scrutinize the vote at Mercedes to find better approaches to thwart the UAW and other unions in future contests and union campaigns.

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The South has become an important battleground. States like Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are attracting billions of dollars invested by automakers and suppliers in electric vehicle and battery industries. The UAW wants to represent workers in those factories.

Mercedes is based in Vance, Ala. manufactures sport utility vehicles at a factory in, and battery packs for electric vehicles at a plant in nearby Woodstock. Voting was going on for a whole week in both the factories.

“We thank all panel members who asked questions, engaged in discussions and, ultimately, made their voices heard on this important issue,” the company said in a statement Friday.

In a largely verbal campaign, union activists argued that in addition to better wages and benefits, the UAW would protect Mercedes workers from sudden changes in their schedule and long shifts, including weekends.

If we don’t make those cars, you don’t put the money you put into your pockets,” said Kay Finglia, who works in quality control at Mercedes and has campaigned for the union. “So treat us with dignity, treat us with respect, and pay us.”

But activists acknowledged that many workers unhappy with working conditions at Mercedes were reluctant to join a union, dissuaded by warnings from company executives and politicians that membership would result in huge dues and a loss of control over their jobs.

Mercedes tried hard to block the union. Last month, in an apparent attempt to address employee complaints, the company shook up local management and appointed Federico Kochlowski as chief executive of the German company’s US division.

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Having worked at Mercedes for nearly 20 years in various manufacturing positions in China, Mexico and the United States, Mr. Kochlowski acknowledged the problems at the Alabama plants and promised to improve them. “I understand that many things are not right,” he said in a Video Published by Mercedes Online. “Give me a shot.”

Union activists Mr. Kochlowski was already a member of top management and explained that his appointment was a last-minute attempt to fend off the UAW.

The UAW has filed six charges of unfair labor practices against Mercedes with the Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company disciplined employees for discussing the union on the job, prevented organizers from distributing union materials, monitored workers and fired workers who supported the union.

Mercedes denies the claims.

Previous attempts by the UAW to represent workers at Mercedes and other automakers in the South had failed. But after winning a union vote last month at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, after losing two previous elections at that plant, the UAW is stronger than it has been in years. The union also won the biggest pay raise last year for workers at Ford Motor Co., the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram, General Motors and Stellandis.

Mercedes workers who support joining the UAW say they will continue to fight.

“Mercedes is going to unionize,” Robert Lett, who works at the Woodstock battery factory and has campaigned for the union, said before the vote. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Friday or tomorrow. There’s so much frustration that we’re not ultimately united.”

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