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Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama vote against UAW union membership

United Auto Workers (UAW) members and supporters on a picket line outside the ZF Chassis Systems plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, US, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.
Andi Rice | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama have voted against union representation by the United Auto Workers, the National Labor Relations Board said Friday.

The results are a blow to the UAW’s organizing efforts a month after the Detroit union won an organizing drive of roughly 4,330 Volkswagen plant workers in Tennessee. Voting started Monday and ended Friday.

Union organizing failed with 56% of the vote, or 2,642 workers, casting ballots against the UAW, according to the NLRB, which oversaw the election. More than 90% of the 5,075 eligible Mercedes-Benz workers voted in the election, according to the results.

The NLRB said 51 ballots were challenged and not counted, but they aren’t determinative to the outcome of the election. There were five void ballots. 

The union and company have five business days to file objections to the election, including any alleged interference, according to the NLRB. If no objections are filed, the election result will be certified, and the union will have to wait one year to file for a union election for a similar bargaining unit.

Mercedes-Benz in a statement said company officials “look forward to continuing to work directly with our Team Members to ensure [Mercedes-Benz US International] is not only their employer of choice, but a place they would recommend to friends and family.”

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain (right) and UAW Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock (left) lead a march outside Stellantis’ Ram 1500 plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan after the union called a strike at the plant on Oct. 23, 2023.
Michael Wayland / CNBC

The loss is expected to hurt the UAW in an unprecedented organizing drive launched late last year of 13 non-union automakers in the U.S. after securing record contracts with Detroit automakers Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis. Those agreements included significant wage increase, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments and other benefits.

UAW President Shawn Fain said while the Mercedes-Benz vote was obviously not the result the union wanted, it was a valiant effort, adding the vote “isn’t a failure” but a “bump in the road.”

“While this loss stings, I’ll tell you this, we’re going to keep our heads up, keep our heads up high. These workers have nothing to do but be proud in the effort they put forth and what they’ve done,” he said Friday during a media conference. “We fought the good fight and we’re going to continue on, continue forward. Ultimately, these workers here are going to win.”

The Mercedes-Benz vote was expected to be more challenging for the union than the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, where the union had already established a presence after two failed organizing drives in the past decade and where it faced less opposition from the automaker.

Stephen Silvia, author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants,” noted Mercedes-Benz replaced the plant’s leader weeks ahead of the election. He said companies routinely do this, promising workers changes at their facilities in an effort to stave of organizing.

“Companies do anti-union campaigns because they can be effective, and I think this one was effective,” said Silvia, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “A common piece of an anti-union campaign is firing the plant manager … That seems to have persuaded enough of the workers to vote against the union.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who was one of six Republican governors to condemn the union’s organizing drive, hailed the outcome of the vote.

“The workers in Vance have spoken, and they have spoken clearly! Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW. We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election,” she said.

Workers at Mercedes-Benz’s Tuscaloosa plant, located about 60 miles southwest of Birmingham, have produced more than 4 million vehicles since the plant opened in 1997, including 295,000 vehicles in 2023, according to the plant’s website.

The Alabama plant currently produces vehicles such as the gas-powered GLE and GLS Maybach SUVs as well as the all-electric EQS and EQE SUVs.

The NLRB last week said it continues to process and investigate open unfair labor practice charges filed by the UAW against automakers, including six unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes-Benz since March.

Fain said Friday the union would continue to move forward with those charges. He declined to say whether the union plans to challenge the election results, saying he’d “leave that” to the union’s legal team.

The charges allege that Mercedes-Benz has “disciplined employees for discussing unionization at work, prohibited distribution of union materials and paraphernalia, surveilled employees, discharged union supporters, forced employees to attend captive audience meetings, and made statements suggesting that union activity is futile,” the NLRB said.

The union has filed other charges against automakers Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Rivian, Tesla and Toyota, according to the NLRB.

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