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United Auto Workers lose union election at Mercedes by 597 votes

With just 44% of the vote, the UAW fails to unionize the Mercedes plant in Vance on the first try.

Surrounded by Mercedes workers, Shawn Fain discusses the election results at the UAW Local 112 headquarters. CHANCE PHILLIPS/APR
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The final count in the week-long union election at the Mercedes factory in Vance was 2,642 against unionizing versus 2,045 in favor. 51 ballots were challenged and not counted and 5 ballots were void. The election still has to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, but it is very unlikely that this process will change the results.

Speaking at the UAW Local 112 headquarters in Coaling, UAW President Shawn Fain said “these courageous workers reached out to us because they wanted justice. They led this fight.”

Fain remained optimistic about the union’s prospects and its momentum as it tries to organize workers in the South. “We’ll be back in Vance,” he said. “I assured the company of that before I walked out the door and shook their hands.”

Today’s loss for the UAW follows what Mercedes employee Brett Garrand described as “a constant brow beating of anti-union campaigns” by Mercedes, the Business Council of Alabama, and Alabama politicians.

Alabama Secretary of Commerce Ellen McNair promised in January that “led by Governor Kay Ivey and backed by the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and other key players in Alabama’s business community, we’re going to fight the United Auto Workers.”

Gov. Ivey and several other prominent state politicians released anti-union statements regularly during the four month campaign. During a speech about signing SB231, which heavily penalizes the voluntary recognition of labor unions, Ivey said she wants “to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state.”

The Business Council of Alabama conducted the Alabama Strong campaign, which ran anti-union advertisements online and on local television channels.

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Mercedes itself also engaged in many practices union supporters have called oppressive. Workers were required to sit through daily mandatory meetings and watch anti-union videos. Flyers posted around the plants read “if you don’t want a union, vote no,” or simply “vote no.”

The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating six unfair labor practice charges filed by the UAW against Mercedes. On May 16, Germany’s Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control announced that it is also investigating Mercedes for anti-union behavior that may have broken German law.

In a statement, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler called the anti-union behavior by Mercedes and Gov. Ivey “part of a long oppressive history in the South, from slavery to Jim Crow right to work laws to prison labor.”

One of the major contributors to today’s loss is likely Mercedes’ replacement of its unpopular plant CEO, Michael Göbel, with then-vice president of operations Federico Kochlowski. In the lead up to and during the election week, Mercedes employees were implored to give Kochlowski a chance by voting no.

While the loss for the UAW today is a major setback for the union, it is not necessarily a death knell for Mercedes workers’ hopes of unionizing.

On Thursday, Garrard pointed to “Volkswagen winning their union after three tries.” In 2014, the vote at the Chattanooga plant was 712 against, 626 for, and in 2019, the vote was 833 against, 776 for. But in April, Volkswagen workers overwhelmingly voted to join the UAW with 2,628 in favor and only 985 opposed.

One pro-union Mercedes worker, Robert Lett, optimistically proclaimed on Wednesday that “Mercedes is going to be unionized, it doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or in the future.”

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With an ongoing two year, $40 million campaign by the United Auto Workers to organize Southern workers, pro-union workers at Mercedes and other Southern auto plants will likely continue to try to organize and build support for unionization in the coming months and years.

Before the results began to come in, Rick Webster, who works doing final fit and finish for Mercedes, confidently stated that he “would definitely try again” if needed.

In a press release responding to the election results, Mercedes stated that “we look forward to continuing to work directly with our Team Members to ensure MBUSI is not only their employer of choice, but a place they would recommend to friends and family.”

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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