Why Did Mercedes-Benz Workers in Alabama Vote No to Unionizing?

On Friday, May 17th Mercedes-Benz workers at two factories in Alabama voted against joining the union, United Auto Workers (UAW). With a final tally of 2,642 to 2,045 against unionizing, the result in Alabama represents the first setback in the UAW’s large-scale unionization campaign that Mašina previously reported on.

Last month, the UAW achieved an important victory by unionizing the first foreign-owned auto plant in the Southern region of the US. UAW had for years struggled to win over workers in the politically conservative South, and the recent success in Tennessee appeared to be a watershed moment.

UAW’s President, Shawn Fain, was seemingly undeterred by the loss in Alabama. In his speech following the vote, he noted that the workers organizing for the union had already forced Mercedes-Benz to cough up several concessions, including the elimination of a two-tier pay grade system that divided workers and relegated new hires to significantly lower incomes. The company even sacked the Mercedes-Benz Chief Executive Officer for North America in April, pleading that workers “give leadership a chance.”

But leadership predictably continued its assault on the union. In the lead up to the vote, the company hired a consulting firm to pressure those who were on the fence and crack down on those supporting unionization. Mercedes received the full support of Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, who in her anti-union hysteria, revoked tax incentives for companies that voluntarily recognize labor unions.

The UAW has filed six unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes with the National Labor Relations Board, including for disciplining and firing workers for discussing or supporting the union. Workers were forced to watch anti-union videos at the beginning of their shifts in which they were told that they would have little say over how union dues are spent. UAW’s checkered past also played a role here, as high-ranking union officials were charged with embezzling $1.5 million in union funds in 2022.

Despite the role of external factors, the loss in Alabama begs several questions about the overall strategy of the UAW in organizing workers. In light of the loss, Fain proclaimed “Sometimes Goliath wins the battle, but ultimately David will win the war. These workers will win their fair share.” And therein lies a potential problem with the UAW’s approach: it is primarily concerned with securing workers a better economic standing as opposed to rethinking the overall undemocratic way production and society are organized.

With such a narrow focus on reforms within the present system, the capitalist class can temporarily dupe the workers into thinking they are on the same side. Just look at the concessions that Mercedes successfully used to avert a union. Within a capitalist society, the capitalist class will always attack, roll back, and erase those reforms. To fully awaken the power of the working class, a union or any workers organization must show them that their struggle does not end with the assembly line.

All that being said, the UAW has been gaining plenty of victories and momentum in its latest campaign. Mass discontent with the status quo has opened up many workers struggles across the United States and world; workers across industries are intricately bound together by a million threads. It is the responsibility of unions to make these threads known and rouse the consciousness of the working class beyond economic gains within the workplace.



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