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Labor Victories in the South

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It’s worth being upset about the United Auto Workers’ failure to win in the Alabama Mercedes plant. But it is also worth noting that organized labor has won a number of great victories in the South recently, and not only at Volkswagen.

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.” 

Organizing the South remains hard as hell. But it’s not impossible and the main thing is to keep pushing forward, which quite honestly too many unions forgot to do after the mid-50s or so, with some notable exceptions of course such as AFSCME and the textile unions.

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