In Labor’s Mission to Organize the South, Another Domino Could Soon Fall

Following the UAW’s successful campaign at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant, workers at a Mercedes-Benz facility in Alabama will vote this month on whether to join the union. A victory could indicate a sea change for labor’s prospects in the U.S. South.

Mindy Isser

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks as local organizers raise their fists at a UAW vote watch party on April 19, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee after winning the right to form a union at the plant. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Late last month, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers (UAW). This was the first time workers at a foreign car maker’s plant have unionized in the U.S. South, the least unionized region in the country. The UAW’s win could have major implications for workers across the South, who are governed by labor laws that weaken unions and result in lower wages. Next up, workers at a Mercedes-Benz facility in Vance, Alabama will vote on whether to join the UAW starting May 13, and the outcome could help determine whether the union’s success in Tennessee will have a domino effect on other workplaces in the region.

Union density in Tennessee hovers around 6% and other states have even lower union density: Virginia’s is slightly over 4%, North Carolina’s is under 3% and South Carolina has the lowest union density in the country, counting just over 2% of workers. All of these states are right-to-work,” which union members and organizers say is a misnomer. In reality, right-to-work laws — which ban union security agreements (meaning that unionized workplaces are prohibited from requiring all workers to pay union dues) — make unions weaker and smaller. 

This new wave of organizing won’t be the first time unions have seriously attempted to organize workers in states unfriendly to labor. In the mid-1940s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) launched Operation Dixie” in hopes of unionizing Southern workers, particularly those in the textile industry. Their goal was not just to improve Southern workers’ lives or grow their ranks, but also to maintain union strength in the North, as industries began relocating to the South due to lack of union density. But Operation Dixie failed in large part due to racist Jim Crow laws and other racial conflicts in the region, the legacies of which workers still deal with today.

Leonard Riley, a 48-year member of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, tells In These Times, our governor Henry McMaster says, come to South Carolina, we work for less.’ That’s how you market your state?” Riley is referring in part to a joint statement released by the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina prior to the union election at the Volkswagen plant, which said that Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.”

The lack of union density has created a feedback loop: working people may not know what unions are or may not know any union members, and lack experience with what union organizers call the union difference,” i.e. the ways unions materially improve people’s lives. (On average, union members make 14% more than nonunion workers. They’re also more likely to have benefits like employer-provided healthcare and a pension.) Riley says, when you live a certain way for all of your life, you become accustomed to not having things you should have. When you get a victory like the UAW’s in Chattanooga, a win that survived intimidation by the bosses and public pressure, it allows all laboring people to see what they deserve.”

This is not the first time the UAW has tried to organize at Volkswagen. The union ran campaigns in 2014 and 2019, and fell short both times, although both previous elections were close—in 2014, the vote count was 712-626, and in 2019, it was 833-776. But the political terrain has shifted significantly over the last decade, with workers taking action against powerful employers like Starbucks and Amazon; participating in high-profile strikes, like the 75,000 employees at Kaiser Permanente last year; and the fact that unions have their highest approval rating since 1965.

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Auto workers specifically have seen new and transformative leadership at the UAW since reformer Shawn Fain took office as president early last year, along with historic victories at the Big Three after the union’s Stand Up” strike last fall. UAW members at Daimler Truck North America — which manufactures, sells and services several commercial vehicles in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee — narrowly averted a strike and won a tentative agreement ahead of the contract’s expiration at midnight on Friday, April 26. The agreement includes an end to wage tiers, profit sharing, inflation protection, and record wage increases, and on May 4 workers ratified the agreement. This victory, another in the South, could also help inspire other workers in the region to organize.

Union organizing in the South has increased despite the immense barriers, including anti-labor legal regimes, right-to-work laws, widespread union busting tactics, and deeply anti-union politicians, and each win has improved organizing conditions for workers across the region. Kelly Coward, a Registered Nurse at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, helped organize her union after HCA Healthcare bought the hospital in 2019. A born-and-raised North Carolinian, Coward didn’t have any personal experience with unions, although she knew nurses in other states were unionized. She had worked for Mission for more than 20 years and was content before its sale to a for-profit company, which is when things began changing. 

That’s when we saw a huge difference. Positions were being cut, we didn’t have the equipment that we needed,” Coward tells In These Times. We knew we needed to do something.” Her co-workers contacted National Nurses United, and went on to win their union election at Mission by 70% in September 2020, becoming the first private sector hospital to unionize in the state. 

The victory in Asheville was a boon for NNU, which went on to organize nurses in Austin, Texas in 2022 and New Orleans, Louisiana in 2023. North Carolina has also seen other union victories in recent years including Duke faculty in 2016, Duke graduate workers in 2023 (both campaigns on which I worked), and Durham REI workers in 2023, along with more heightened union action by public sector workers in the state, like sanitation workers with United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150 who went out on an illegal strike in 2023 in protest of low pay.

Ben Carroll, the Organizing Coordinator of the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA), says, the victory by Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga is nothing short of electrifying. It gives confidence and momentum to many workers across the South who themselves are organizing and building power in their own workplaces, and sends a strong message to the rest of the labor movement that the South can and will be organized.” 

SWA was founded 12 years ago and works to coordinate worker organizing across the region, helping them engage in collective action. Their goal is to exchange lessons between workers in the region, develop an infrastructure of rank-and-file workers, and support those who are organizing both through the NLRB and outside of it. Carroll tells In These Times, we hope that the rest of the labor movement will follow the UAW’s inspiring lead and mobilize the resources needed to take advantage of this opening and organize in the South.”

The UAW is continuing to build on the momentum from their victory at the Big Three. In addition to workers at Volkswagen and Mercedes, workers at Hyundai in Alabama have also launched a union organizing campaign, with more than 30% of workers having signed union authorization cards. The UAW has made it clear that it plans to organize all non-union auto plants in the region.

Mercedes worker and member of the volunteer organizing committee, Jeremy Kimbrell, has worked at the Alabama plant for nearly 25 years, and has also been involved in past organizing drives there. Kimbrell tells In These Times that despite living in an anti-union state his entire life, my [parents] instilled in me you don’t let people treat you just any kind of way. My daddy was in the coal miners’ union, and his granddaddy, back in the 30s or 40s, shot at a coal truck that was crossing the picket line, so I never doubted the power of a union.” 

But as the union election at Mercedes approaches, and after the UAW’s blow-out win at Volkswagen, the bosses and politicians in Alabama are turning their union-busting up a notch. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey posted on X (formerly Twitter), The UAW is NOT the good guy here,” calling the union corrupt, shifty and a dangerous leech.” Ivey also wrote an op-ed which reads, in part, the Alabama model for economic success is under attack. A national labor union, the United Automotive Workers (UAW), is ramping up efforts to target non-union automakers throughout the United States, including ours here in Alabama.” Former Mercedes CEO Michael Göbel, who resigned from his position late last month, also came out against the union, as did special-interest business groups, who have paid for anti-union billboards near the plant and set up anti-union websites. 

"Politicians say they represent the people, but then say the workers don't deserve their fair share of the labor. That doesn't work." —UAW President Shawn Fain

Workers at Mercedes aren’t just fighting the boss or contending with the unfriendly political landscape — they’re up against both, and one can’t change without the other. Carroll says that it’s not difficult to trace the reactionary politics that dominate the region to the lack of working class organization and power.” And it’s difficult to win that kind of power when the political conditions are so fraught. But workers are continuing to fight on, and hope to shut out the noise of right-wing politicians and the Business Council of Alabama, the state’s chamber of commerce, which has penned op-eds against the union and even created a website, Alabama Strong,” which states that Alabama’s auto industry’s future is threatened by a UAW attack seeking to impose the union’s way of business on your life.”

UAW President Fain doesn’t mince words when referring to Alabama’s governor and the state’s Business Council: These people are nothing but puppets for corporate America and for the billionaire class, and they’re the reason why workers aren’t getting their fair share. Politicians say they represent the people, but then say the workers don’t deserve their fair share of the labor. That doesn’t work.”

Isaac Meadows, who has worked at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant for almost two years and is a member of the organizing committee, says of the union effort in Tennessee, It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it. Mercedes is in a tougher fight than we had. Oftentimes you feel like you’re by yourself, out fighting alone, but you’re not. There’s a lot of support, inside and outside, so keep up the fight, keep up the good work, it’s worth it in the end.” 

Ahead of the vote, which could end up being another domino in labor’s plan to organize the South, Meadows tells In These Times that he wants Mercedes’ workers to know, this is not [the politicians’] decision. It’s our decision. They don’t work in these plants. I’ve put the invitation out to any of these governors, come work next to me for a day, see what I do. So far none of them have taken me up on it.”

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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