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Mercedes-Benz workers vote against unionizing Alabama plant, halting UAW's streak

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

United Auto Workers had been on a roll until yesterday. The union had hoped to follow up last month's historic victory to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga with another win in Alabama, but a majority of Mercedes-Benz workers voted no. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom was there to witness the UAW's major setback.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: You could feel the tension at the union hall, just a few miles away from the two Mercedes plants in Alabama. Workers and supporters had their heads buried in their phones, hitting refresh, hoping the plant voted to unionize. Instead, it confirmed a long-held truth.

STEPHEN SILVIA: It is very hard to unionize in the South.

BISAHA: That's American University professor Stephen Silvia, and he knows that truth better than most. He's written an entire book about the UAW and its many failures in the South. And he could smell history was about to repeat itself.

SILVIA: Well, you were at the Volkswagen one, right?

BISAHA: Oh, yeah.

Alabama's neighbor, Tennessee, had just seen its Volkswagen plant unionize with an overwhelming yes vote just last month.

SILVIA: People were very giddy, right?

BISAHA: Yup.

SILVIA: How much giddiness do you see?

BISAHA: Yeah, not much giddiness in this Alabama union hall. The Mercedes plants were a firm no - 56% of votes were against the union.

Are you surprised by this?

ROB LETT: I am, actually.

BISAHA: Rob Lett campaigned for the union. He was standing outside the union hall as the loss settled in. He started the day confident. After all, so many of the roughly 5,000 workers at these two plants seemed excited about unionizing.

LETT: The people - myself and others I interacted with - seemed very enthused about getting to the point where they were actually going to be able to vote finally.

BISAHA: Clearly, a lot of these workers flipped from yes to no. And Rick Webster blames the relentless anti-union messaging from his employer, Mercedes.

RICK WEBSTER: We were getting text messages, emails. We were having to sit through meetings every day, watching a video or something of that nature, and it was all anti-union. And honestly, over the last couple of weeks, it's just been everybody's just sick and tired of hearing about it.

BISAHA: The thing is, Mercedes has long been a great place to work in Alabama - great benefits, top pay. But in the last five years, workers had seen their pay slip behind. So when last fall, the UAW started winning record contracts against the large automakers up north, many Mercedes workers wanted to join the union. Mercedes heard that and decided to up its pay. UAW president, Shawn Fain, calls that...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: The UAW bump. You know, Mercedes is a better place thanks to this campaign and these courageous workers.

BISAHA: Mercedes even replaced its CEO to send a message to workers that they're willing to change. But Fain says the anti-union campaign by Mercedes violated labor laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: 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.

BISAHA: Fain did not say if the union would challenge the results of the election. Professor and UAW historian Stephen Silvia, took a moment to consider what title he'd give this latest UAW Southern failure.

SILVIA: I'd call the chapter of this one at first you don't succeed.

BISAHA: At first you don't succeed - legally, the UAW has to wait a full year before trying a second time for a vote at these Mercedes plants. In the meantime, it's setting its sights on another auto plant in the South - Hyundai in Montgomery, Ala. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUT'S "METIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stephan Bisaha
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