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UAW Loses Battle At Mercedes, But The War To Unionize Auto Is Far From Over

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About one month after the historic United Auto Workers victory at the Chattanooga, Tennessee Volkswagen plant, workers at Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Alabama began their union election. Chattanooga Volkswagen was the first auto plant in the South to unionize through an election since the 1940s. Off the tails of a landslide 73% yes vote at Volkswagen, and filing for a union election at 70% union authorization cards collected in the workplace, there were high hopes for the Mercedes union election results on May 17th. Unfortunately, the over 5,000 worker plant, the sole producer of one kind of luxury SUV in the world, lost its union election 44% to 56%. It begs the question – was the Chattanooga victory a fluke?

Is Momentum Enough?

Timing is rarely a secondary question in the tug of war of class struggle – where workers are constantly fighting to improve their conditions, and bosses are constantly fighting back to protect their profits. The 40-day strike of the “Big 3” automakers, which won 25% raises and ended the hated “two tier” system, put worker power back on the table for UAW after years of bureaucratic corruption.

President Shawn Fain correctly seized upon this critical moment and launched a national organizing drive, with a goal of organizing 150,000 new autoworkers. Since its launch in December, well over 10,000 auto workers have signed union authorization cards at 13 non-union auto plants, concentrated primarily in the South.

This momentum has bolstered workers’ confidence everywhere, and has opened the potential to change the political and economic landscape of the anti-labor South. It was enough to carry 4,300 autoworkers in Chattanooga to victory, setting them on the path towards fighting the toughest battle – winning a good contract that improves the lives of workers. However, as workers develop their own strength and confidence, learn the best methods and tactics from each other, the bosses learn too and fight back stronger. The bosses may have gotten caught off guard in Chattanooga, but will fight in illegal and dirty ways to not let it happen again. If momentum is the wind behind the sails, then a strong ship is what is needed to make it through the worst of a storm.

Can The Bosses Be “Neutral?”

The ship of UAW was not strong enough to stand the currents of hostile union-busting, anti-labor laws, and political attacks in Vance, Alabama. One explanation is the lack of a “neutrality agreement,” where the auto bosses agree to stay hands-off a union drive, something that was granted to autoworkers in Chattanooga. No such agreement was reached in the deep red state of Alabama, where workers were subjected to intense captive audience meetings, intimidation, and even bribery. 

However, to rely on such peacemaking agreements would be a mistake. First of all, there is no neutral position between the boss and the worker. Every dollar gained by the boss is a loss for the worker, and vice versa. This makes unions, workers organized to fight for concessions against the boss, an inherent threat to companies, their power, and their profits.

In addition, the idea behind neutrality agreements, that workers share a common interest with the boss, actually makes it easier for the bosses and politicians to fear-monger about the potential harms of unionization. Unionization is at an all time low, and the bosses are always looking for new ways to cut costs, automate jobs, move factories overseas, etc. at the expense of workers. Unions need to respond by putting forward a wider program for society, and mobilizing the whole working class into the struggle. Neutrality agreement or not, the bosses and their political servants cannot be underestimated, even in the most momentous and optimistic of circumstances.

From Majority Cards To Majority “No” Vote

Excitement was high as a supermajority of UAW union authorization cards was turned into the National Labor Relations Board, filing for a union election. In the month that followed, a company crackdown that echoed the Chattanooga Volkswagen strategy of 2019, when autoworkers lost their second union election at that plant, played out. A new CEO was put in place at Mercedes-Benz, and workers were asked to “give the company another chance,” and offered time off the backbreaking work line if they agreed. 

Management targeted team leaders, higher up workers with large influence amongst the workers below them, with the worst of their anti-union campaign. Outside the company, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey encouraged workers to vote no, framing the union vote as a threat to the state’s economic success, citing recent layoffs at the Big 3 automakers as proof. “Not only could there be layoffs, there could be investment made in other plants in other parts of the country or in other countries,” warned Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal.

What these vicious attacks point to is the need for even stronger shop floor organizing, where leaders in the workplace are inoculated to stand up to the lies of the company and politicians, and prepare for what needs to be fought for beyond the union election. There needs to be a robust community campaign that backs autoworkers, and sees the betterment of workers’ lives as synonymous with the betterment of the whole working class of Alabama. For example, unionization would help push back against Alabama’s refusal to enter into Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act. This is one of many reasons why unions should run independent candidates with a program that speaks to the full working class.

The Road Forward for Autoworkers

The Mercedez-Benz UAW loss is the first big setback yet in the national organizing drive. However, this was not done in vain – the workers took up a heroic battle against a powerful, luxury automaker, effectively eliminated wage tiers, and have added important contributions to lessons of the labor movement. Potentially up to bat next is the Hyundai auto plant in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Toyota plant in Troy, Missouri, both of whom announced reaching 30% of cards collected. Unfortunately, the bosses will now be looking to replicate their union breaking tactics from the experience of Mercedes. 

The bosses and their politicians at these auto plants will do the same thing. They will scare southern workers, who experience higher poverty rates and lower standards of living, that the “job creator” bosses will leave. They will look to intimidate and harass workers on the shop floor. They will try to create divisions between various tiers of workers to put up a smokescreen in front of the massive profits auto corporations are making. To win, workers need clear demands for what the union will do, double down on the shop floor organizing to counteract union busting, and mobilize the wider working class into the struggle to fight back against the harsh corporate-GOP alliance that has profited off southern workers for decades. It is up to workers to prove that Volkswagen was not a fluke, but an alarm to the bosses for what is possible when workers fight together.

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