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Auto workers in Alabama are voting on joining a union. Here's what you need to know

A giant Mercedes-Benz logo towers over the tree line at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Vance, Ala., on June 7, 2017.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
A giant Mercedes-Benz logo towers over the tree line at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Vance, Ala., on June 7, 2017.

In Alabama, a high-stakes election gets underway Monday.

More than 5,000 workers at Mercedes-Benz near Tuscaloosa, Ala., are voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers union.

For months, there's been fierce campaigning all around.

Pro-union workers at Mercedes are hoping for a repeat of last month's union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., where workers voted nearly 3-to-1 in favor of unionizing.

But unlike at Volkswagen, Mercedes workers say they have been barraged at work with anti-union videos highlighting the failures of unions elsewhere and forced to join closed-door meetings with lawyers.

"The entire message in those meetings is Vote no, vote no, vote no. We don't think you need to do this. This is not what you want," says David Johnston, who works at the Mercedes battery plant.

In a statement provided to NPR, Mercedes said it "fully respects our team members' choice whether to unionize," while adding, "We believe open and direct communication with our team members is the best path forward to ensure continued success."

Pro-union workers at Mercedes-Benz have been wearing and handing out buttons throughout their campaign.
/ Claire Harbage/NPR
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Claire Harbage/NPR
Pro-union workers at Mercedes-Benz have been wearing and handing out buttons throughout their campaign.

Alabama Republican calls the UAW "a dangerous leech"

The pressure on workers is coming from outside Mercedes too. In recent weeks, a number of Alabama politicians have spoken out against the vote, concerned that their state's pro-business, anti-union reputation could take a hit.

In an Op-Ed, Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter called the UAW "a dangerous leech."

"Now that they've sucked all the blood out of cities like Detroit, they have southern states like Alabama in their crosshairs," he wrote.

An anti-union billboard near the union hall that's served as headquarters for the organizing campaign at Mercedes-Benz.
/ Claire Harbage/NPR
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Claire Harbage/NPR
An anti-union billboard near the union hall that's served as headquarters for the organizing campaign at Mercedes-Benz.

Alabama's Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair has warned that unionizing at Mercedes could cost the state jobs. After all, Alabama successfully lured not just Mercedes but also Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Mazda to the state with massive incentives and the promise that unions would never be welcome.

"Not only could there be layoffs, there could be investment made... in other parts of the country or in other countries," McNair told Alabama Public Television's Capitol Journal.

Alabama's Republican Governor Kay Ivey has pressed automakers in the state to do something about their workers' discontent, according to McNair.

"If there are issues, you need to fix this," was the message.

Mercedes shakes up its leadership in Alabama

Two weeks before the union election, Mercedes announced a leadership change in Alabama.

In a taped video segment, Mercedes board member Jörg Burzer implored workers to support their new CEO Federico Kochlowski, saying "The only path forward is for us to work together, as one team, to bring about the positive change you deserve."

Johnston, the battery worker, says he's already lost trust in management. He's frustrated with the endless schedule changes he's endured at Mercedes, including one that had him working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I've pretty much missed the first year of my youngest daughter growing up," says Johnston. "It's time that I can't get back, unfortunately."

First elections are often hard to win

This week's union election is the first to be held at Mercedes in Alabama following decades of failed organizing attempts.

Coming off the UAW's successful strike last fall and its resounding win at Volkswagen in April, there is a now-or-never feeling to this moment.

The Mercedes-Benz organizing campaign has been run out of a union hall in Coaling, Ala., a short drive from the plant where workers build luxury SUVs.
/ Claire Harbage/NPR
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Claire Harbage/NPR
The Mercedes-Benz organizing campaign has been run out of a union hall in Coaling, Ala., a short drive from the plant where workers build luxury SUVs.

But American University professor Stephen Silvia, author of the book The UAW's Southern Gamble, says first elections are often harder to win than subsequent elections, as some workers are swayed by management's promises of change.

"Then, if things don't change three or four years down the road, the workers take the approach of Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, and will vote for a union," he says.

Mercedes workers have through Friday morning to cast their ballots.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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