Hyundai Workers in the South Are the Latest to Join UAW’s Sweeping Union Drive

Following record contract wins at the Big Three, the United Auto Workers is spearheading an ambitious organizing campaign that’s spreading across the U.S. South.

Luis Feliz Leon

Hyundai first assembly and manufacturing plant in the United States is right outside of Montgomery, Alabama (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Auto workers at Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, have signed up more than 30 percent of their nearly 4,000 co-workers in an ambitious drive to unionize.

The Auto Workers (UAW) announced the organizing breakthrough with a new video, Montgomery Can’t Wait,” where workers link the labor and civil rights movements: Montgomery, the city where Rosa Parks sat down, and where thousands of Hyundai workers are ready to Stand Up.”

There’s something about our fight to unionize being homegrown that makes it just that much sweeter,” said Quichelle Liggins, a 12-year quality inspector at Hyundai.

All I can tell my people to do is be bold and intentional. Just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, we’re linking together one by one. One person had to say, Hey, it’s time for us to make a difference!’ And then several other people had to agree, and now we have a group of workers that feel the same way.”

Workers in this plant assemble the Santa Fe and Tucson SUVs, the Santa Cruz pickup truck, the Genesis GV70 luxury SUV, and the Electrified GV70.

They’re the third plant to reach the 30 percent milestone in the UAW’s new organizing push, just weeks after workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and on the heels of those at Tennessee’s Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in December.

The UAW announced Monday that more than 10,000 workers across 13 non-union plants have signed union cards since last November, when the union announced an ambitious goal to organize 150,000 autoworkers. That’s roughly the same number as are covered now under the Big Three contracts.

Once workers reach the threshold of 30 percent on signed union authorization cards, under the UAW’s rubric, they take their organizing public. At the 50 percent mark, they rally with their co-workers, families, neighbors, and community and union leaders, including UAW President Shawn Fain.

As soon as 70 percent of workers at a given plant sign cards, and their organizing committee has grown to include workers from every shift and job classification, they will demand voluntary recognition of their union. If the company refuses, the workers file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

Tried before

Hyundai workers had tried mounting a union campaign in 2016, but it never garnered much support, plus management intimidation caught workers unprepared. They didn’t even file unfair labor practice charges after being targeted for organizing. Talk of the union resumed in 2020 at the height of the pandemic after management kept managers on the payroll but forced hourly workers onto the unemployment rolls.

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Liggins compared the long lines to sign up for unemployment to a Michael Jackson concert, with people lining up for hours on end, bringing along folding chairs to sit on. Workers also said that Hyundai management penalized people for being sick. They started chatting on Facebook, initially a small group of no more than three. Liggins had signed a union card in 2016, but she wasn’t involved in that campaign.

But once the UAW’s Stand-Up Strike began grabbing headlines last fall, she and her co-workers started talking in earnest about a union at Hyundai, especially after the union notched a historic victory. Then the company actually threw money at us,” Liggins said. Hyundai promised to raise wages by 25 percent over four years. So, all we’re doing is talking about the union. And we got this little money and began wondering what we could get if we actually tried to form a union. And so here we are today.”

Overworked and demoralized

The biggest issues motivating Hyundai workers to unionize are retirement security, favoritism, high rates of injury, and punishing schedules that leave little time for family or even time away from the line to recuperate from an illness or care for a sick child. Workers complain that Hyundai’s six-day workweeks and last-minute schedule changes break up their weekends, leaving them overworked and demoralized. Managers routinely flip their schedules with little notice between days and nights or over holiday breaks.

Gilbert Brooks usually takes vacation days ahead of Martin Luther King Day, which is a company-paid holiday. On Tuesday, he reported to work at his scheduled time, but because of the holiday, he didn’t check the app and see that managers had called an early start. He didn’t need to check — if a worker is on vacation, the early-startup notification isn’t supposed to apply. Hyundai manager’s dinged him for being late anyway, moving him to phase two of the disciplinary process.

That kept me from getting a maintenance job after they had already offered me the job, and I had signed the paperwork,” said Brooks, with feeling in his voice. They took it away from me.”

At Hyundai, workers are required to maintain 99 percent attendance. If a worker dips below that percentage because they are late or absent, they are given a verbal warning, or what the company calls a discussion planner,” and the worker is put on probation for a year. At the phase two mark, the worker is given a written warning and two years of probation, and has to write a letter to team relations (HR) showing contrition and vowing to do better in the future. At phase three, the worker is automatically terminated without any appeal process.

Hyundai has no sick days. With only three personal days, regardless of years at the company, workers are bound to end up in a disciplinary process.

If you have kids and they are around the same age, if one gets sick, everyone in the house gets sick,” said Liggins. So with three personal days for a family with small kids, there’s no way around it — you’re probably going to be in a phase by the time you get back to work.”

Concrete wears you out

Most workers put in grueling 10-hour shifts on hard concrete floors and lift their arms over their heads. As the years on the factory floor pile up, the result is damaged knees, torn rotator cuffs, and numb hands from carpal tunnel.

When 19-year employee Timothy Cripple first arrived at Hyundai, he described it as winning the lottery – the pay was good, plus he was a hard worker. He makes over $30 an hour after the company raised wages following the UAW stand-up strike. But as an engine shop machine operator, his job has taken a toll on his body, especially on a permanent third shift schedule from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Having put in the time to build Hyundai into a successful company, Cripple applied for a different position to get off his swollen feet after all these years of toil. He was hoping to move to an engine lab. But the company didn’t even post the jobs. Instead, the manager hired the nephew of a group leader off the street, bypassing Cripple’s seniority.

I knew it would be better for me to be in there in the lab instead of walking on concrete all night, because that wears you out,” said Cripple. And there’s no rest — not even on holidays.

If a holiday is on a Monday, they’ll give you a Sunday off,” he said. You still have to come in on Monday night. So you don’t really get to see any holidays.”

Over the past three years, Hyundai’s profits have soared 75 percent, while its vehicle prices rose 32 percent.

Workers also worry about their retirement security. The Hyundai plant takes such a toll on their bodies that many won’t be able to keep working all the way up until they’re eligible for Medicare at 65; they will need health insurance after they leave the job.

Soaring profits

When measured by the speed a car is produced, Hyundai’s Montgomery plant is the second-most-productive plant in the world. Over the past three years, Hyundai’s profits have soared 75 percent, while its vehicle prices rose 32 percent.

Brooks connects the company’s prosperity to its $300 million expansion plans at its Montgomery assembly plant, and the buildout of a $400 million battery plant by Hyundai Mobis, South Korea’s largest auto parts supplier. It also has another facility in South End, Georgia, in the Kia complex.

If the company wasn’t prospering, there would be no way that they could do that,” said Brooks. He’d like to see some of the profits he and his co-workers have generated for the company reinvested in the workers.

He referenced the recent nonsense the company has been putting out in union-busting meetings about a family-oriented company culture. If we’re family-oriented, they will try and do their best to take care of us — meaning profit-sharing, meaning a pension after we retire,” he said. We have nothing after we retire. We’re not retiring. We actually just basically quit the company, because we get nothing.”

For Liggins too, the talk about family is bull. She got written up for job abandonment” four years ago when she scheduled a half-day of vacation to attend her youngest son’s basketball playoff game. No one came to relieve her, but she left, since she had scheduled it and it was approved. When they had her sit down with HR, she was grilled about whether her family or her job was more important.

I always bragged about my kids’ games,” she said. I’m a basketball and football mom. That’s my life.” Monday mornings she’d update her co-workers about her kids’ sports games. When she was told by management to choose work over family, she was stoic on the outside, but inside she was furious. I didn’t want to go off and get out of character. I just paused, and I was speechless, like, You actually had the gall to tell me that.’”

Republicans declare war on workers

Over four decades, automakers have relocated to the South to flee unions. And Hyundai plant management is hellbent on keeping it that way.

They want to indoctrinate us with their anti-union commercials, but they don’t want us to have any UAW material in the plant,” said Cripple. While he was handing out UAW flyers in the breakroom, a team leader took them and threw them in the trash. Another worker, Beverly McCall, was told to stop passing out leaflets in the company parking lot. But she carried on, telling management, We have every right to get the word out, and they can’t stop us,” according to a UAW press release from December when the union filed unfair labor charges against Hyundai, as well as Volkswagen and Honda.

Management has hauled workers into captive-audience meetings to show anti-union videos and passed out anti-union T-shirts. In one commercial, Brooks said, a team leader shows pictures of a shack where workers had lived before working at Hyundai and shows another picture afterwards of a revamped home.

State officials have argued that the state’s growing auto sector will be threatened if workers unionize.

Alabama is tied in with Tennessee as the fifth-highest car-producing state in the country. Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and suppliers employ a combined 50,000 workers in Alabama.

Nationwide, the share of union workers in manufacturing declined by 21 percent from 1983 to 2022. The UAW’s industrial base in auto, which at its peak stood at 1.5 million members, has substantially eroded.

Key to the UAW’s strategy is to empower workers inside the plants to build their unions publicly, rather than organizers who don’t work there running an underground campaign. In previous organizing efforts at Nissan and Tennessee, Republican governors and anti-union groups painted the union as out-of-state interlopers.

Soon after the Mercedes-Benz workers went public with their organizing in January, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey wrote an op-ed vowing to bust the union.

It was a shock to hear the governor say she’s for the employer,” said Cripple, who found the insinuation that he and his co-workers were an outside entity disrespectful. Why wouldn’t you want your constituents to better themselves financially and improve their working conditions?”

Never picked up a tool

There are actually thousands of us who get on the floor and run those lines day in, day out,” said Liggins. The governor has never stepped foot in Hyundai. Our CEO has never stepped foot on the line. He’s never picked up a tool, doesn’t know what it’s like to work overnight on Saturday — a total of 10 hours — and drive home early Sunday morning. So what surprises me is them telling me what I need and don’t want and how I should react, if they can’t walk a mile in my shoes.”

Alabama Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair claimed that the workers’ union drive would place our state’s main economic driver in the crosshairs.” McNair insinuated that workers would lose their jobs: The days of Alabama being a premier destination for industry investment may be coming to an end.”

The Business Council of Alabama announced a website, Alabama Strong, meant to wallop the union drives. This anti-union front group brings together the business interests of Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes to provide Alabamians with a full and thorough picture of the economic dangers that unionization presents,” wrote the Business Council’s CEO Helena Duncan in an op-ed titled The United Auto Workers labor union must not do to Alabama what it did to Detroit.”

They’ve declared war on us now,” said Mercedes-Benz auto worker Jeremy Kimbrell, who works near Tuscaloosa. Game on!”

The union-busting playbook may be dog-eared, but it’s still in use because it works. But workers are hip to its contents this time and know what to expect. Last time, Liggins said, the company would throw terms at workers — right to work,” just cause” — and they’d get intimidated because people didn’t fully understand what they meant.

Nobody ever tried to challenge it,” Liggins said. This time around, we knew that we needed to file unfair labor practice charges.” When workers got hauled into HR for flyering and talking about organizing in break areas, they were ready.

They took them to the office, but once we filed charges, nothing happened,” she said. And so that was kind of like, okay, that works. And we’ll try something else.”

This story was originally published at Labor Notes.

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Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor and organizer at Labor Notes.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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