OPINION: Just by having a union vote, Mercedes workers in Alabama won major concessions and proved the importance of worker power

Economic Policy Institute

Two weeks ago, more than 4,500 workers at Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Vance, Ala., voted on whether to organize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). After Mercedes and Republican-elected leaders in Alabama waged a vicious anti-union campaign, the workers narrowly voted against the union. While this result shows the power of corporations and state governments to smother worker efforts to unionize, even in defeat the UAW helped Mercedes workers win substantial improvements in pay and benefits. Worker organizing can benefit workers whether or not they end up with a union.

As (the Economic Policy Institute) has long documented, U.S. labor laws are heavily stacked against workers. Evidence suggests that more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union in 2023 but couldn’t do so. Employers spend more than $400 million annually on consultants to oppose worker organizing efforts, and employers are charged with violating the law in more than 40 percent of all union election campaigns. Many states, including Alabama, have helped employers by passing so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) laws; on average, workers in RTW states are paid 3.2 percent less than similar workers in non-RTW states, which translates to $1,670 less per year for a full-time worker. RTW laws have always been intended, first and foremost, to prevent workers from successfully organizing.

The workers at the UAW campaign in Alabama experienced a full-court press from the state and the company. In the run-up to the election, Governor Kay Ivey joined five other Southern Republican governors in issuing a statement warning that “unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.” This was part and parcel with the South’s long history of anti-union efforts motivated by racial animus. While the statement rebuked the UAW for supposed “scare tactics,” it was Ivey who made the most of scare tactics, signing a law during the union campaign to punish companies that voluntarily agree to work with unions.

Mercedes subjected workers to a constant barrage of “captive audience” meetings where anti-union talking points and videos were repeated ad nauseam (at least seven states have banned captive audience meetings in order to protect workers’ freedom of thought and association). Mercedes workers report that company management targeted team leaders, who often have hopes of promotion, and applied daily pressure to get them to change their minds and vote against the union.

Focusing solely on the anti-union efforts of Alabama and Mercedes, however, misses a vital point: Even when workers lose union elections, they can still win substantial improvements in their working conditions. Just a month after the UAW announced that 30 percent of Mercedes workers had signed union cards, the company gave a $2-per-hour raise to the highest-paid workers, and eliminated the two-tier wage system that had prevented many workers from reaching that higher pay level. The company also fired its longtime U.S. CEO, ridding the workers of an unpopular boss. The new CEO made promises to “create a culture that puts you (the workers) first” and to “make decisions that are in your best interest.” If the company doesn’t live up to its promises, the workers may try again and win, just like workers did at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant earlier this year.

The UAW’s recent efforts have also spurred other companies to improve job quality. The day after UAW won its historic strike by signing a lucrative contract with the “Big Three” automakers in October 2023, Toyota announced raises as high as $3.70 per hour at a plant in Kentucky. Honda raised wages by 11 percent while Hyundai increased the pay of its U.S. workers by 14 percent, with a full 25 percent increase to go into effect by 2028.

While none of these companies would openly admit that their actions were in response to the UAW’s success, it is difficult to explain them otherwise. For all their claims that unions are bad for workers, employers know that unions boost worker wages, increase worker access to benefits like paid leave, promote racial equity, and also contribute to building a stronger democracy.

Workers organizing to improve their working conditions benefit from unions in many ways, but even when a union victory eludes them like in Alabama, the organizing can pay off. The more workers band together to fight for better jobs, the more likely they and other workers will see the benefits.

(Dave Kamper is senior state policy strategist for the State Policy and Research team at the Economic Policy Institute. Reprinted from EPI’s Working Economics blog.)

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