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Thoughts on the UAW’s Loss at Mercedes

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As you have probably seen by now, the United Auto Workers lost in their bid to unionize Mercedes. They had over 70 percent of the workers sign cards, but when it came down to it, only 44 percent of the workers voted yes. Now, it’s common for workers to get cold feet. This is why you rarely see an election unless at least 60 percent of the workers have signed a card. But to go from 70 to 44, that’s a huge decrease.

So what happened. The short version of it was a classic unionbusting campaign from Mercedes that pulled out all the stops–the hard stuff, like anti-union meetings and videos, and the soft stuff, like a new plant CEO who says to give him a chance and using a local preacher to cleave off Black support. I wonder how much he was paid for that. This is also a useful time to remember that despite King and Abernathy and Shuttlesworth, et al., many many Black ministers outright opposed the civil rights movement in their communities at first, protecting the position in the white community that they had carved out.

The South is also just goddamned hard to organize. There’s a reason these plants are there. It’s also worth noting that while much of the South has changed, Alabama has most definitely not. Part of the reason for the UAW victory in Chattanooga is that the workforce was simply a lot different than the first attempt ten years ago. It is less white and less southern. Chattanooga is a thriving city. Alabama has a completely stagnant population and just lost a congressional district. No one is moving to Alabama. It, Mississippi, Arkansas, and to a lesser extent Louisiana are simply the remnants of a South that barely exists anymore in the region’s eastern fringes. Even South Carolina is more likely to turn blue than Ohio at this point. So organizing Chattanooga is one thing. Organizing Alabama is another. Going back a full century now, solving the South has been a top priority for American labor and it simply has never happened.

Luis Feliz Leon and Jane Slaughter have a pretty good run-down at Labor Notes. Let’s read some of that now:

In addition to anti-union videos and mailings, captive-audience meetings, firings, and an onslaught of pressure from state politicians and even a local pastor, the winning move was to fire the company’s U.S. CEO and replace him with a vice president who promised to care about the “team members.”

A team leader named Ray Trammell, who voted no, said his area was 100 percent union before the former CEO was removed. “[New CEO] Federico [Kochlowski] has been a positive influence,” he said. “A lot of people want to give him a chance. It was all production-driven before him; he’s more about the team members. He’s willing to change.

“We have a year. We have that year to see what he does. If he doesn’t make positive changes we can bring the union in.” (After losing an election a union has to wait a year before filing a new petition for the same group of workers.)

The vote, held May 13-17, was 2,045 in favor of forming a union to 2,642 against. The majority of the workforce is Black. There were 51 challenged ballots, and five voided; 5,075 workers, not including contract workers, were eligible to vote.

“These courageous workers took on this fight because they wanted justice,” said United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain. He said the federal government and the German government are investigating the intimidation that Mercedes inflicted on workers, following the “same playbook” of union-busting as other U.S. employers.

“Ultimately these workers are going to win,” he said. “We have no regrets in this fight.”

At Mercedes, previous union efforts had never gotten this far. So this was the first time workers had experienced a full-on anti-union campaign—and it worked on some of them. A worker named Keda, for example, said she wanted to “give Federico a chance.” She pointed to management’s elimination of two-tier wages as an indication of good faith.

Others voted no more out of fear than out of hope. “If it’s not broke, don’t rock the boat,” said a worker named Terry. Team leader Arthur Bates said he didn’t want to see layoffs. “Mercedes has shareholders and they have to keep the shareholders happy,” he explained. “If they lose some money somewhere, the company will find a way to make that money back.”

….

Mercedes’ union-busting program included doling out carrots. In February, a month after workers reached 30 percent on union cards, the company announced it would hike the top pay by $2 and eliminate the wage tiers, so now everyone would top out at $34 after four years.

Michael Göbel, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, stepped down in a video message that workers were shown in April. Göbel had groused in a captive-audience meeting about a worker’s claim that Mercedes had come here for the “Alabama discount”: low wages. The top pay of $34 may appear high, but not compared to $43 for production workers at Ford by the contract’s end in 2028.

Though his departure showed the union drive was already getting results, the firing of Göbel swayed some workers into the “no” column. Kochlowski circulated a letter the first day of voting thanking workers for a “warm welcome,” promising vague things like “to make this a place you’re proud to work,” and imploring them to give him a chance. He had walked the floor the last two weeks talking to literally thousands of workers and making promises.

“People bought that bullshit about the new CEO,” said David Johnston, a battery worker on the organizing committee. “We needed every vote we could get to win, especially in plant two [the non-electric vehicle plant]. But unfortunately workers flipped. The fight is far from over.”

For its last-ditch union-busting effort, Mercedes called in divine intervention in the form of a video message from Reverend Matthew Wilson, a pastor of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama, and a city councilperson for Tuscaloosa.

In the video, Rev. Wilson implored workers to give Kochlowski a chance, saying “the legacy of the state of Alabama is counting” on it. The reverend also walked around the shop floor talking to workers one on one.

“This is a strategy as old as unions,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner of the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations. Indeed, in the 1930s Henry Ford recruited Black pastors to recommend new-hires and oppose the UAW at his Ford Rouge plant outside Detroit.

“Particularly in towns dominated by a very large corporation,” Bronfenbrenner said, “companies give enough money to churches to purchase their long-term loyalty, and rely on the church leaders to preach an anti-union message.”

“They had everything, except the guys in the mob movies with the billy clubs doing the union-busting,” said Lett.

The minister actually walking the shop floor. Again, I hope he got paid. I am sure he did and I am sure it was minimum a good hefty five figures, if not six.

A lot of workers are also very soft yes votes. If someone is bugging you about signing a union card, you might do it just so they leave you alone, but it doesn’t mean much to you. The UAW clearly did not do a good enough job organizing on a day-to-day basis with the soft yes votes. That is a big error. It also seems that a lot of the organizing was taking place on Zoom because people live in such a wide radius in the country around the plant. That’s not real organizing and it also means that every one of those meetings was recorded and sent to the company. Even my union would never hold a meeting on zoom and we haven’t had to strike in 45 years.

It does sound like the UAW is handling this right. They are going to file for another election in a year. That’s NLRB rules for elections–you have to wait a year. Over time, they will probably see it through. Of course the new CEO isn’t going to do a damn thing for those workers. But it can often take time to see it through, especially in places like Alabama where there aren’t that many unions and where there aren’t a lot of good paying jobs for working class folks. The next likely election is the Hyundai plant, also in Alabama. I don’t know what the status of that is now. But the idea that many of us were hoping that the UAW would go in and sweep the South and start rebuilding the American labor movement, well, that’s simply not going to happen. It’s a long, hard struggle. So you just have to keep going.

Still, it was a tough weekend.

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