In Tough Loss, the High-Profile UAW Campaign at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama Falls Short

“This is probably the most strategic and organized union busting campaign in decades,” said one Mercedes-Benz worker.

Sarah Jaffe

Workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama—Sammie Ellis, Austin Brooks and Brett Garrard—talk while at the union hall on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

Workers at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Vance, Alabama came up short in their first union election on Friday, May 17, with 2,045 votes to join the United Auto Workers and 2,642 against. 

A brief but high-energy campaign that saw real improvements won at the plant and a worker-led effort to organize failed to create a wave after the high-profile Volkswagen workers’ win in April in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

These courageous workers reached out to us because they wanted justice. They led us. They led this fight. And what happens next is up to them,” UAW President Shawn Fain told reporters shortly after the vote count. Justice isn’t just about one vote or one campaign. It’s about getting a voice and getting your fair share. Workers won serious gains in this campaign. Don’t lose sight of that. The UAW bump, they killed wage tiers. They got rid of a CEO that had no interest in improving. Mercedes is a better place thanks to this campaign and these courageous workers.”

Rob Lett, a worker at the Mercedes-Benz plant, notes that essentially this is a post-Covid world and corporations have to understand that they can’t treat people in any haphazard way and think that they’ll just hold their heads down and say, No, I can’t do any better.’ People understand now that life’s too short.”

Rick Webster, another member of the organizing committee at Mercedes, told me, The vote shows that we do have a really strong base though, and we just got to continue this fight. Obviously, everybody’s going to be looking at Mercedes to see what they do from here. Are they actually going to try and improve conditions in the workplace to try and sway our base to come to their side? Or are they just going to continue like nothing ever happened?”

If it had been a landslide for the company,” he continued, yeah, I’d probably feel pretty deflated at that point. But with those numbers, I feel really good about that.”

I have a thing for cars,” Sammie Ellis told me as we sat outside the United Auto Workers office, a few miles from the Mercedes plant where he’s worked for two years, and a few days before the voting would wrap up. Before Mercedes, Ellis was at a nearby Honda plant for eight years; most of his adult life, in other words, spent building cars in this corner of Alabama. He’s soft-spoken with a big smile, but his bouncing leg while we spoke betrayed some nervous energy: this campaign was important, and he was feeling the pressure.

The Mercedes plant sprawls between highways, with multiple shiny and modern buildings, though some of the facilities have been there for decades. Inside, Ellis said, is a glittering row of $80,000 vehicles, all different colors, with different options and trim. When we spoke, voting had been open for two days, and Ellis was an election observer for the union side, taking shifts to oversee the process and make sure that it was all aboveboard.

After a months-long campaign organizing to join the UAW that felt both long and like a whirlwind, he said, People are, I’m not going to say showing their true colors, but they’re standing up for what they believe.”

"It's all built right here in Alabama. And I feel like if they love those cars, then they got to love the people that build those cars,” Ellis said. “And if you love the people that build those cars, you should understand why we deserve better.

On a typical workday, Ellis installs wiring in the cars for ten and a half hours, with a 35-minute lunch break and three shorter breaks. He’s on the day shift, and while it’s grueling, he is proud of his attendance record and the plant’s record of production. But turnover, he said, is high, and morale is low. The sparkling luxury cars that consumers love are made in frustrating conditions, and Ellis’s sentiments were echoed by all the Mercedes workers I spoke with: It’s about respect.”

Time was the central issue for Ellis and for his coworkers. His day begins at 6:15 in the morning and ends at 5:20 in the evening, and he drives 100 miles — an hour and thirty minutes — to and from Anniston, Alabama to get to work. The commute makes his total day closer to 14 hours than ten and a half. He’s missed out on a lot of his five-year-old daughter’s milestones, and the long days are wearing on his body. And then, he said, Gas prices are high, gallons of milk is high, eggs is high. Everything has skyrocketed. And the cost of living goes up every day, every year. But we don’t get a raise like that.” He’s been dedicated to the Mercedes plant, but he isn’t feeling that same dedication coming back. And so he joined the union drive.

Alabama is the new little Detroit. You have Honda, Mercedes, Toyota and the cars that people love to drive and they love to buy. It’s all built right here in Alabama. And I feel like if they love those cars, then they got to love the people that build those cars,” Ellis said. And if you love the people that build those cars, you should understand why we deserve better.”

Sarah Jaffe

Webster tried to get involved with the union drive at Mercedes while he was still a temp, back in 2022. He’d been working at the plant for years, in tool calibration and repair with a third party company, and had been pushing for a full-time Mercedes job for a while, so eventually he took a position with a temp agency to get into production, and shortly after that, was hired directly by Mercedes. 

Where Ellis is quiet, Webster is direct, even blunt. Neither one struck me as easily intimidated. The worker leaders at Mercedes are confident, proud of their work and their products, but clearly fed up with conditions, and acutely aware of their place in a changing global economy as well as within a messy political conjuncture. 

Mercedes-Benz employee and UAW supporter Sammie Ellis stands in front of the United Auto Workers union hall in Alabama on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

Major corporations have been trying to union bust since the 1800s,” Webster said, rocking back in his chair at the union office. They have slowly but surely tried to get rid of every single union they can in the country, and there’s a reason for that, and I imagine it’s not to benefit workers.”

The temp situation is only one of the issues that made him so interested in the union, but it’s a significant one. New temps, he noted, are slid into jobs that require specialized training, and the use of temps is part of a tiered pay system that leaves some workers making less for the same work. 

They have very high turnover because a lot of people go into auto manufacturing and they think that they’re just going to be assisting a robot,” Webster said. They don’t realize that they are the robot.” 

“Major corporations have been trying to union bust since the 1800s,” Webster said. “They have slowly but surely tried to get rid of every single union they can in the country, and there's a reason for that, and I imagine it's not to benefit workers.”

The robots haven’t taken away jobs, in Webster’s experience. But often they make the work harder: they sometimes get in the way of operations, breaking down at inopportune times and occasionally creating bottlenecks. But more important to him is the way workers are treated like robots — expected to keep grinding on for hours and never need rest: If you have a heart attack line side, they’ll just throw one of those temps in your spot and tell em to keep the line moving.” 

Webster works in body panel adjust, meaning he’s one of the last people to touch the car before it goes off to its new owners. He grew up in Tuscaloosa, about 25 miles west from the plant, and has worked in all sorts of jobs before he came to Mercedes: painted houses, mined coal, worked in the service industry, and said that in most jobs he’s been promoted quickly. But not at Mercedes — even though he said he is asked to do supervisory work without getting supervisor pay. (In These Times requested comment from Mercedes-Benz about this and other claims in the article.)

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While the Mercedes plant is certainly strategically important for the UAW, Webster said, this drive has been run by on-site workers from the beginning. They told the union Let us build this, and once we get up to where we need to be, then you can bring in the reinforcements.” This drive began in the fall of 2023, with less than two dozen workers in the organizing committee, and most of the organizing was done in the plant itself. We built up very, very quickly.”

Kizmat Finklea, who everyone calls Miss Kay, has been one of the public faces of the campaign. She’s been at Mercedes 23 years and didn’t take part in the previous union drive. This time around she’s front and center on billboards, smiling out on Interstate 20 and talking about her roses on campaign videos the UAW has produced. 

It’s totally different from” the last drive, she said. It worked out better because we were able to talk to the people and let em know, Hey, we are the same. This, it’s me. It’s us trying to fight for each other.” 

A billboard advertising support for the United Auto Workers union drive at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, on May 16, 2024. The billboard says "Standing Up for Alabama" and the worker in the center is Kay Finklea. ANDI RICE MEDIAWORKS (WWW.INSTAGRAM.COM/RICEANDI)

Lett, who along with Finklea sat down for a roundtable discussion with the handful of reporters on May 15 at the union headquarters, said he joined the campaign because he wanted to stand up for his coworkers. When you get to know people, work with them for literally years at a time, you see them get mistreated, you take that personally,” he said. I know a lot of people I’ve talked to just feel like they’re being treated like children every day and they’re not getting treated with any respect or any kind of dignity.”

In the early days of the drive, Webster said, it was pretty easy for workers to move around the plant and talk to one another about the union. But when the campaign began heating up and management got wind of the organizing happening in the plant, the company began to crack down on conversation. At first they tried to say, You can’t talk about that because the line’s running, but we can talk about football.’ So at that point it’s freedom of speech,” Finklea said. So we shut that down really quickly.” 

Just like Ellis, time — the long and constantly-changing shifts and work weeks — was the biggest factor for Webster and part of what made him feel disrespected. Webster works the night shift, and his drive in to work is at least an hour. But he has coworkers who commute even further than Ellis; from Mississippi, two hours or more each way. The exhaustion, he says, gets dangerous. 

There are daily captive audience meetings, where rather than spend time discussing quality control or safety issues in their beginning-of-shift meetings, workers are forced to watch anti-union videos. They’re getting texts all day, and letters in the mail, promising to explain “union facts” and imploring them to give the new CEO a chance.

The schedule that we’re on now, you get two days off every three weeks. You get five days off every three weeks for night shift,” Webster explained. Their rotating schedule means six days of work in a row before constantly changing days off, and for the night shift, it means being asleep when your family is awake. 

That can be kind of rough. I really only get about three days off. The first day I’m sleeping and the last day I’m trying to flip my schedule back,” to readjust to being awake at night. But he sticks with the night shift because he gets Saturdays off, and that’s the day he gets to go to his son’s football and wrestling events. So even though it plays havoc with his health — he has Type 2 diabetes — he values those Saturdays. With the union, though, his hope had been for the company to return to a three-shift system, which would mean shorter shifts and splitting up the night.

Finklea noted that the change to the two shift rotation happened about two years ago, against the workers’ wishes, and Ellis added that they’ve complained to managers to no avail. They say they have an open door policy. The door has been open, no doubt, and questions have been asked. So we’re at that point now where we’re taking a stand.”

Healthcare, too, has been an issue driving the union campaign. Their workplace insurance is expensive, and the attendance policy gives them little flexibility to be sick — it’s a point system, Webster explained, and even with a doctor’s note, points are still deducted. When he had COVID, he felt rushed back to work to avoid being fired. Ellis said that after retirement, the company would cut off their health insurance — right when their bodies were worn down from years of hard work. You strip me of health and then you’re going to strip me of the healthcare and you expect me to survive after I put in 20, 25 years?” he said. 

The workers all said the disrespect deepened as Mercedes rolled out its anti-union campaign. There are reported daily captive audience meetings, where rather than spend time discussing quality control or safety issues in their beginning-of-shift meetings, workers are forced to watch anti-union videos. They’re getting texts all day, and letters in the mail, promising to explain union facts” and imploring them to give the new CEO a chance. There are flyers in the plant, and posters, and while workers have been allowed to wear their union T-shirts under their required Mercedes shirts, or wear UAW hats, buttons and bracelets, they aren’t allowed to put up union posters. 

There was a banner outside the plant, Lett said, that simply said VOTE” on the public-facing side, while the side facing the workers said VOTE NO.” 

And then there were the attack ads. I heard one on local radio, paid for by the Business Council of Alabama. Webster noted that they run them during the morning shows, which are on around the time of a shift change, and says he even saw an anti-union ad on AccuWeather.

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Meanwhile, Alabama’s Gov. Kay Ivey released statements denouncing the union, saying the state’s model for economic success is under attack.” Webster shrugs them off.

This is probably the most strategic and organized union busting campaign in decades,” Webster said.

Following the vote, Webster said that the third party company that they brought in, and taking workers 10, 20 at a time, however many they were taking up there. I heard some meetings were as short as 20 minutes, but I had a buddy of mine, he was in there for an hour and a half and just all anti-union.”

Union literature at the union hall in Vance, Alabama, on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

So I definitely feel like that last push they made,” Webster said, that third party company made a really big difference. I think if we voted two weeks ago, before that, we would’ve won.“

Political scientist Michael Goldfield, author of The Southern Key: Class, Race and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, was also skeptical that the external political pressure on the union drive was useful. Unions managed to win in the South in the 1940s despite being denounced as Communists and race mixers and all of the above.

The opposition of the company within the plant means something,” Goldfield said, because it personally threatens people’s jobs and their activities and whatnot.”

Finklea and Lett agreed with this analysis. To Finklea, it’s not about politicians who have never put a part on a car.” And to Lett, the union campaign has been powerful precisely because it’s brought together workers who are not friends off the shop floor, who don’t agree politically, but who trust each other and agree that something at the plant needs to change. When Governor Ivey started coming out against the union, I even heard people that were anti just kind of taken aback,” he said. She wasn’t even addressing the issues that people [who] were anti-union wanted to address.”

Alabama’s Gov. Kay Ivey released statements denouncing the union, saying the state’s “model for economic success is under attack.” Webster shrugs them off.

Another tactic from the company was to broadcast in the plant a message from local Pastor Matthew Wilson, who is also a city council member in Tuscaloosa, to the workers, encouraging them. His message was more along the lines of, This job has been great for people like me and people who look like me,’” said Finklea, who, like Ellis, the pastor, and most of the workers at the plant, is Black. That to me was racist.”

The UAW filed several unfair labor practice charges against Mercedes, including two just in the last week, accusing it of using coercive statements and of laying off and refusing to re-hire pro-union employees. In the press conference, Fain said, This company engaged in egregious illegal behavior. The federal government and the German government are currently investigating Mercedes for the intimidation and harassment that they inflicted on their own workers. And we intend to follow that process through. It’s a David versus Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle, but ultimately David will win the war. These workers will win their fair share and we’re going to be there every step of the way with them.”

The anti-union campaign wasn’t all sticks, though. There were some carrots, real changes in working conditions and promises of more that ultimately seemed to sway many of the workers away from the union. The company hiked pay and eliminated wage tiers in February, as Luis Feliz Leon reported in The American Prospect. In April, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International promoted Federico Kochlowski to CEO, and he went on a charm offensive with workers, asking for a chance before they voted for a union. The workers I spoke with were unimpressed, but felt like the promises worked on some of their colleagues. 

Same company, same suit,” Webster said. Lett added, I find it funny that he is pretending like he just got off the plane when he’s been here for a year now as a VP.” Finklea suggested that if Kochlowski wanted to do right by the workers, he could sit down and bargain with them and put his promises in writing. Make it legal so you can’t change in two or three weeks or two months.” 

Things were hectic in the final week as the vote kicked off, according to Ellis. The organizing committee workers were still fielding questions from undecided coworkers, and wearing as much union swag as they could get away with on the job. They were confident, though Ellis admitted to some jitters. But, he said, it feels bigger than us.”

It’s that sense of meaning that drove the organizing committee to extend their already-long days, talking to coworkers, observing the vote on their days off, and talking to reporters from around the world. That level of commitment, they said, made the campaign feel even more special, even if it ultimately fell short.

This latest union drive in Vance had aimed to build on the momentum from the UAW’s high-profile win in Chattanooga less than a month earlier, but organizers and workers were also capitalizing on the attention and general public support the UAW’s Stand-Up Strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers earned in 2023. People said, Hey, if they can do it, we can do it too,’” Finklea said.

It had taken Volkswagen workers three tries to win their union election, something that the workers at union headquarters in Alabama on the day of the vote reminded each other. The Stand-Up Strike had given the organizing committee something concrete to point to, Lett said. 

These are actual results; we were almost selling the dream before. We think we can get this, get that. We actually have something we can point to and say they got X, they got Y, they got Z, we can do the same thing,” Lett said. And I think that made a huge difference.” 

While the earlier drives had in some ways asked people to take a leap of faith when most of them had little experience with unions, this time, they were fresh from a major national story — and victory— where workers not that far from them had won real raises and improvements to their benefits. The new leadership at the UAW has had a lot to do, then, with what’s happening here, even if the workers didn’t talk much about Shawn Fain by name. 

The change in leadership in the UAW has been pivotal for us being able to come together as employees and start this thing up on our own, because that’s what we did,” Webster said. Following the Stand-Up Strike, union cards began pouring in to the UAW from around the South, across the non-union international automakers. Many of those workers, like the ones at Mercedes, began organizing on their own, and by the time the UAW announced its new, broad union drive across the region, some 10,000 autoworkers had signed union cards.

Brett Garrard speaks to reporters about his support for the United Auto Workers during a roundtable discussion in Vance, Alabama on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

The UAW was willing to put money—some $40 million—and organizers into those workers’ campaigns. While the workers were doing most of the organizing, they had support from experienced staff and the confidence that comes from being part of a big fighting union. And this UAW doesn’t seem inclined to abandon the Southern plants, or indeed this particular plant.

Goldfield pointed out that unionization, like other social movements, often proceeds by leaps and bounds rather than slowly and methodically; that momentum matters, but so does a real commitment to new organizing. Leadership struggles within unions in the 1930s and 1940s made a real difference to organizing success, he wrote, and these different leadership groups were often the key to whether organizing was successful or not.” 

That history shaped the UAW: in 1936, the left-wing Unity Caucus came within a hair’s breadth of taking over leadership of the union, but radicals within the Communist Party were persuaded to back off to maintain their relationship with the leaders of the CIO, which was then surging across the country and taking aim at the South. This, in turn, paved the way for the Left to be purged from the union as former UAW President Walter Reuther consolidated power. There were various attempts over the years, Goldfield told me, coming from UAW Local 600 at Detroit’s River Rouge plant, from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and from the United National Caucus, to challenge the Administration Caucus, which had held power since Reuther.

Ellis stressed that for all the importance of union leadership, the campaign at Mercedes began with workers talking to each other. “This is not a facade, this is not a script,” Ellis said. “This is real life.”

The reforms instituted within the UAW in 2021 after a corruption scandal finally allowed for a more direct election of leadership within the union, and in 2023 Shawn Fain and the UAW Members United slate won the first contested election within the union in decades. They immediately turned to strike planning, and now they have the audacious goal of organizing all the international automakers across the country.

But Ellis stressed that for all the importance of union leadership, the campaign at Mercedes began with workers talking to each other. This is not a facade, this is not a script,” Ellis said. This is real life.” 

Finklea said that during this campaign, when undecided workers worried about having to go on strike, she reassures them that we’re the ones who decide on the strike opinion.” 

We are the people that make that decision.” 

The UAW’s office in Alabama is in a town west of Vance called Coaling and is situated between three dollar stores; the exit to the hotel where I stayed ran through Cottondale, which is another 10 miles west. The street names reminding me and everyone else of the basis of the economy here, at least in the old days. There’s also, of course, a Mercedes Way, and signs along I-20 reminded me we were only 25 miles or so from Bessemer, where Amazon workers have voted twice on joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, and the results of that second election still hang in the balance.

The Southern hospitality here is real, but that’s not why the automakers have swarmed to Alabama, which is now fifth in automobile production among U.S. states, and third when it comes to auto exports. I think that the auto manufacturers were looking for a discount,” Webster said. They weren’t just looking for a discount on labor. They were looking for a discount across the board and they found it here. Now, Mercedes was the first plant to come, but since then they’ve added Hyundai, Honda, Toyota. I don’t know what kind of deals they got. I imagine it was something similar to Mercedes.” 

The deal Mercedes got was worth some $500 million in today’s dollars. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1993, Tuscaloosa city and county governments agreed to spend $30 million to purchase and help develop the rolling, forested, 1,000-acre site in Vance, just off Interstate 59 about 20 miles east of Tuscaloosa. Birmingham officials kicked in $5 million. The property will be transferred to Mercedes for $100.

The Legislature, at the urging of Gov. Jim Folsom, also passed a law providing Mercedes with property, corporate and income tax abatements. The law allows Mercedes to keep 5% of workers’ pay and use it to pay down debt on the project. The workers get a state income tax credit for the deduction.”

A scene from the inside of the United Auto Workers union hall in Vance, Alabama on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

The workers all call it the Alabama Discount”; the UAW has printed posters that say End the Alabama Discount,” and Webster ended our conversation with those words, too. Ellis explained, When you get into Alabama, you see nothing but land. Fields, just land for the taking.” The state offers some money to the companies to come in, and on the backs of that discount they make billions. 

Organizing the South has been labor’s white whale since the CIO’s failed Operation Dixie, its campaign, launched in 1946, to unionize major southern industries. But that narrative — that the South is nonunion and always has been — can overshadow the existing radical history here in Alabama. 

We have a very, very deep history of being unionized,” Webster said. The people I talk to, I make sure to bring it up. A lot of people these days seem to be kind of ignorant of history. I find it very, very important though.” 

Michael Goldfield called it Alabama Exceptionalism” in his book, and pointed to those coal miners, who built a powerful interracial union that was, he said, among the vanguard of the coal miners in the country.” They were concentrated in these same counties around Birmingham. There were steelworkers, textile workers, sharecroppers organizing, and an unemployed workers’ organization that grew during the Depression. And, as Robin D.G. Kelley detailed in his classic history Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, they were supported by a Communist Party that, at least for a time, had the deepest commitment on the American Left to racial equality. 

After World War II, Goldfield noted, Alabama had 25% or 26% union density — higher than any state has today — and today it is at 7.5%. In those days, those leaps and bounds mattered, and strikes then were key to that growth, more so than union elections. But it still mattered that unions put money into new organizing, and hired organizers with experience who reflected the demographics of the workforce. Operation Dixie, he pointed out, hired hardly any women organizers even though women were key to the textile workforce. And Operation Dixie’s total budget sounded impressive, but wasn’t commensurate with the size of the task.

Most importantly, though, Operation Dixie lacked the commitment to antiracism that was necessary to not just win in, but transform the South. While union support was central to civil rights organizing, a more powerful Southern labor movement might have changed the face of the country, putting an end to the Alabama Discount” before it began. The CIO leadership, Goldfield wrote, failed to see the necessity of a broad, egalitarian, solidaristic labor movement, both as a goal in itself and as the best means of organizing. Operation Dixie must, therefore, be seen as a primer on how not to organize.”

There were, of course, real drawbacks to focusing on Black workers. Kelley and Goldfield both noted that the Communist Party’s commitment to racial equity did turn off some white workers. But that was not a reason to turn away from racial justice work the way the CIO ultimately did. Unions and the Black freedom movement, then as now, shared the same opponents: whether it be Bull Connor or Cop City. Workers in many industries need what Goldfield calls associational power” — the power of allies — in order to win, and strong labor unions in turn can benefit those other justice movements.

“Governments, officials, the governor of Alabama, all the people that's in government offices around the south, we elected you to have those seats,” Ellis said. “Don't ever forget that it was the people that you needed help from to get where you are. Why don't you want us to have better? Because it's at the cost of your pockets. We know why.”

Auto workers still have a degree of structural power in the economy that many others don’t, though they are a smaller portion of the workforce than they used to be, and though deindustrialization has taken its toll. The workers at Mercedes are well aware that it would be hard for the company to abandon the massive plant it has built with those tax incentives, and where they make some of the most expensive cars in the world. They know that they matter to the company, and that they matter to those other autoworkers watching this union drive from BMW and Honda and Toyota plants. They know, as Ellis said, that manufacturing is huge in Alabama now, and across the South, the low-road economic development model that Gov. Ivey and others are attached to is indeed threatened by a successful union drive. And it’s the workers who make up for those tax breaks. Tuscaloosa has a 10% sales tax, noted Webster, and food is not exempted. 

Governments, officials, the governor of Alabama, all the people that’s in government offices around the south, we elected you to have those seats,” Ellis said. Don’t ever forget that it was the people that you needed help from to get where you are. Why don’t you want us to have better? Because it’s at the cost of your pockets. We know why.” 

As Webster pointed out to me, Mercedes plants are unionized around the rest of the globe: it is the U.S. factories that are outliers. They build cars that are exported around the world, including Mercedes’s most expensive model, the some $170,000 Maybach GLS, which the company describes as the absolute pinnacle of luxury.” 

But they are the low-road plant. The fact that every other plant is already unionized and then they still organized this massive anti-union campaign shows how much money they’re actually saving — or I’m sorry, how much money they’re actually pocketing by getting the Alabama discount on it.”

Rob Lett, who works at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, supports the union drive and is sitting at the United Auto Workers union hall on May 16, 2024. Andi Rice Mediaworks (www.instagram.com/riceandi)

The failure to organize the South, in other words, had long-term material consequences that are being felt every day. And the successful organizing of the Southern auto plants can have consequences, too, though it will not be easy. The workers I spoke with were all convinced that it was coming, that not just the automakers but the airports and public services and yes, the Amazon facilities, would all vote to unionize soon. Webster suggested that workers should — and do — pay attention to how management is actually treating you.”

Take a good internal look at what it is you’re being asked to do,” Webster said. How often do they add mandatory overtime?” 

The Southern workers are, Lett said, on the precipice of this huge monumental change.” Of course, that left some people anxious or fearful, and that anxiety or fear ultimately won out this time. But for Lett, unionizing, isn’t as much stepping out into the unknown as it is taking control, or grabbing a hold of the way things are done — or having some kind of say.” 

The workers did not regret their decision to pour their energy into the union. I don’t want to stand on the sidelines, I want to try to make a difference if I can,” Finklea said.

When asked what he would do if they lost, Lett said, Essentially just go to work like normal and figure out how we’re going to organize the next time. Mercedes is going to be unionized. It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday or in the future. There’s too much frustration there for us to not eventually unionize.” 

Sammie Ellis concluded: I think it was time to wake America up and let the world know that the South has something to say.” 

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Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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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