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UAW says majority of Alabama Mercedes workers signal support for union

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UAW says majority of Alabama Mercedes workers signal support for union

Feb 27, 2024 | 11:10 am ET
By Brian Lyman
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UAW says majority of Alabama Mercedes workers signal support for union
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The Mercedes emblem seen on the GLE 350 model at the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center on April 1, 2015 in New York City. The GLE is one of several car models manufactured at Mercedes' plant in Vance, outside Tuscaloosa. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

The United Auto Workers said Tuesday that more than half of the workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance had signed union cards, another milestone in an organization drive with significant symbolic importance.

“We haven’t taken this step lightly,” Jeremy Kimbrell, a longtime worker and union supporter at the plant, said in a statement released by the UAW on Tuesday. “For years, we’ve fallen further behind while Mercedes has made billions.”

A Mercedes-Benz U.S. International spokeswoman said in a statement that company had “a positive team culture that includes an open-door policy.”

“MBUSI has a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits,” the statement said. “We believe open and direct communication with our team members is the best path forward to ensure continued success.”

Workers at the plant announced the union drive in January, citing stalled wages at the plant. An Alabama Arise report published in November found that while Alabama auto workers on average make more than the median household income in the state ($64,682 v. $59,674), their real wages had declined 11% between 2002 and 2019.

The report also found that state autoworkers’ pay trailed national averages. It also said that Black workers, Hispanic workers and women are paid substantially less in the automotive industry.

UAW said in January that 30% of the workforce had indicated their preference for a union, enough to allow organizers to call for an election. However, the UAW said it wants to sign up 70% of employees before asking for voluntary recognition by Mercedes-Benz or calling for an election, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The drive is taking place at a plant widely viewed as laying the groundwork for Alabama’s automotive industry. Mercedes-Benz agreed to build the plant in Vance in 1993 thanks to a large incentive package offered by the state. Since Mercedes’ arrival, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota have opened factories in Alabama.

A major attraction for companies was the relative lack of unions in the state. Prior attempts to organize the workforce at the auto plants failed, but UAW has been active in Alabama and Tennessee in recent months. Workers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery have also launched a union drive, citing pay and health concerns.

The union drive has led to push back from the company and state officials. Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, has been sharply critical of the union and called it an “out-of-state interest group” at a speech at the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

“We need your efforts to serve as a model to other local areas grappling with this threat from Detroit,” she said. “Alabamians work harder than anyone and make the best automobiles in the world. And we must not let UAW tell us any different.”

UAW has not criticized the work ethic of the state’s autoworkers or the products they make.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.5% of Alabama’s workforce (156,000 people) belonged to a union in 2023, while 8.6% (180,000 people) were represented by unions. Both numbers are below national averages but are the highest in the South.

Jemma Stephenson contributed to this report. Updated at 1:54 p.m. with statement from Mercedes-Benz.