In Relay Race to Organize the South, Volkswagen Workers Pass the Baton to Mercedes Workers

Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama are slated to vote in May on whether to join the United Auto Workers. Photo: UAW

Michael Göbel, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, stepped down from his post yesterday, according to a video message that workers were shown.

Göbel had groused in an April captive-audience meeting about a worker’s claim that Mercedes had come for the “Alabama discount”: low wages. His departure is another win for Mercedes-Benz workers, who already scored pay bumps and an end to wage tiers—and they haven’t even voted on the union yet.

The company and Alabama politicians are ramping up their anti-union campaign as an election draws near. The 5,200 Mercedes workers at a factory complex and electric battery plant outside Tuscaloosa will vote May 13-16 on whether to join the United Auto Workers, with a vote count May 17.

They’re following close on the heels of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who notched a historic victory April 19—the first auto plant election win for the UAW in the South since the 1940s.

The VW vote was a blowout: 2,628 yes to 985 no, with 84 percent turnout. The National Labor Relations Board certified the results April 30, meaning VW is legally required to begin bargaining with the union.


Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and the Business Council of Alabama have been vociferous in their opposition to the UAW’s new drives. Ivey said that unions would attack “the Alabama model for economic success.”

The BCA expresses the will of the state’s most powerful corporations, including Alabama’s biggest utility company, health care provider, and bank, according to an analysis by Derek Seidman for Truthout.

Meanwhile auto workers at Hyundai in Montgomery have signed up 30 percent of their 4,000 co-workers in another ambitious drive to unionize.

“Gov. Ivey has been on the phone with both the leaders of Mercedes and Hyundai, and has said, ‘If there are issues, you need to fix this,’” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair last week on a TV talk show.

She said the union drives have “gotten the attention of all manufacturers across all states. It really is a wakeup to listen to your employees.”


If the Alabama workers vote yes, workers in South Carolina might stand up next: at Mercedes in Charleston, Volvo in Ridgeville, and BMW in Greer.

The 1,600 workers at that Mercedes plant produce Sprinter vans. At Volvo, 1,500 build S60 sedans and luxury SUVs, including the fully electric Volvo EX90. Volvo is owned by the Chinese multinational automotive company Geely, but it is still run by the Swedes.

The Greer plant is the largest BMW factory in the world, employing 11,000 workers. Workers there assemble the BMW X series and XM SUVs, vehicles, and coupes.

South Carolina also hosts numerous European companies, such as Michelin, which supplies BMW with tires, BASF, a supplier of emissions control technologies, and the world’s largest auto supplier, Bosch, which makes fuel injection systems.

The UAW will face a tough fight in the state, where only 2.3 percent of working people are union members. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster said in January, referencing a dispute with dock workers, that he would “fight” unions “to the gates of hell.”


The UAW is riding a wave of momentum after winning landmark contracts at the Big 3 automakers last year. Workers in the South especially paid attention to these lucrative gains.

“We could see what other auto workers were making compared to what we were making,” said Yolanda Peoples, a member of the organizing committee on the Volkswagen engine assembly line.

Production workers at VW were starting at $23 per hour and topping out just above $32, compared to the $43 that UAW production workers at Ford’s nearby Spring Hill assembly plant will make by 2028 under the new contract.

In a vain attempt to head off a union drive, Volkswagen boosted wages 11 percent to match the immediate raise UAW members received at Ford. Peoples saw her pay jump from $29 to $32.

The UAW spent $152 million on strike benefits for workers in 2023, compared to the $116 million the entire labor movement spent in 2022, according to union researcher Chris Bohner.

But even in the Stand-Up Strike, the UAW didn’t win everything on its list of demands. Mercedes is leaning into the union’s failure to win pensions. “Is the UAW promising you a pension if you vote for them? They made the same promise at the Big 3 and then failed to deliver,” reads a flyer the company is distributing across the plant.


In a Facebook Live video on April 23, UAW President Shawn Fain described the union’s dues investment in organizing the South as part of its strategy to keep building power to win those demands next time.

“This ain’t charity; this is power,” he said. “Density is destiny. In 2028, we’re going back to the table with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. If we want the leverage to win back our pensions and retirement health care, we need to organize the unorganized.”

“Their strategy has been to frame the organizing campaign as over a whole industry, not just against individual companies,” said labor organizer and writer Dave Kamper. “This allows them, for example, to have members who work for one automaker go campaign for workers at another company, and their messaging doesn’t try to pit workers from one company against others. It truly is a working-class strategy, appealing to class solidarity over company loyalty.”



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The big nonunion automakers are strategic targets for the union. But crucial to the success at VW and the momentum of the other drives so far is that they’re also what organizers call “hot shops”—that is, workers are enthusiastic to organize.

“A top-down campaign can’t conjure the militant desire for a union out of nothing,” said Richard Yeselson, a writer about labor and a former union campaign strategist. This is where he has seen many other “strategic” union drives fall flat. Success “requires a fighting workforce to attract a union campaign—not a union campaign to contrive a fighting workforce.”


At VW, “we didn’t think things would happen so fast,” said worker Victor Vaughn.

The organizing committee recruited 300 co-workers as election captains. “We have well over 90 percent coverage within the plant, every position, every line,” Vaughn said. “At that point we knew, ‘Yes, we’re where we need to be.’”

The workers got support from UAW organizers from the West Coast’s Region 6 in building a highly representative and well-trained committee. The organizers emphasized recruiting a broad range of leaders. They made it easier for workers to get involved—simply by agreeing to speak to their co-workers, sign a public “vote yes” petition with their faces on it, and wear union gear in the plant.

The volunteer organizing committee ran its own meetings, solidifying members’ leadership and confidence. As in the Mercedes campaign, the organizers also shared real-time data as cards came in, so the committee could see where there was support and where there were holes.

Many of the UAW staff organizers came from higher education—a sector where grad workers have recently been unionizing in large numbers, in worker-led campaigns.

The worker-led approach made it tougher for management to convincingly portray the union as an outside “third party.”


Unlike in previous drives, workers boldly showed their union support from day one.

“In 2019, you could have your union flyers, but you had to be hush-hush,” said Renee Berry, a logistics worker on the organizing committee who has worked at the plant for 14 years. “We had to hide flyers in our bag. We couldn’t lay them on the table.”

Both anti-union and pro-union workers had offices in the plant in 2019. “People were too scared to go over to the union office,” said Berry. If management caught her answering a worker’s question about the union on the floor, she was hauled in to HR.

Rather than challenge this culture of fear, UAW organizers back then retreated from direct confrontation. “The people that were pushing for the UAW, it was like we were part of a secret society,” said Peoples. “We didn’t want to get in any trouble with HR because we said the word union. So it was real hard for us to get the word around to our co-workers.”

In the winning drive this year, workers on the volunteer organizing committee were highly visible and confrontational when necessary. “We have VOCs that are really out front passing out handbills,” said Vaughn. “We’re right in the face of everybody—not afraid of anything that’s gonna come down the pike.”

Berry said workers had gotten so fed up they would openly defy management. “They don’t care, to the point that they are tired of being intimidated,” she said. “They are either going to fire me or write me up. You have to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything. You’ve got to say, ‘I gotta keep on going, no matter whatever happens.’”


While politicians have lined up to oppose the union drives, the organizing committees at VW and Mercedes have striven to make the choice not about Democrats vs. Republicans, but about the working class vs. the billionaires.This idea resonates; workers have good reason to be angry.

“People for the most part are smartening up. And they’re not paying attention to the political crap,” said VW worker Angel Gomez. “The politicians know nothing about blue-collar work. They are born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” Take Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, heir to a family construction business with annual revenues of $220 million in 2019 when he became governor.

“We have a Democrat in the U.S House of Representatives out of Birmingham named Terri Sewell,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, a measurement machine operator at Mercedes. “She’s a corporate Democrat. She will give lip service to workers and the unions, but when it comes down to it, man, she’s bought and paid for by businesses.”

“For centuries, the Southern economy has been a rigged game—a scheme designed to enrich a select few at the expense of the many,” said Fain, rallying with Daimler Truck workers in North Carolina ahead of their April 25 contract expiration.

The wealthy and powerful have “dominated the state governments and written laws to protect their own interest,” Fain said. “They think of the world as divided between those who make the rules and those who are ruled… But now they sense that things are changing.”

On the brink of a strike, the union and Daimler reached a tentative deal, which workers will be voting on. The deal ends wage tiers, boosts wages 25 percent over four years, and adds a cost-of-living adjustment and, for the first time, profit-sharing.

“We set an example for the entire South,” North Carolina UAW Local 3520 President Corey Hill told Reuters. “I hope Mercedes in Tuscaloosa was paying attention to what we’re doing.”


If workers have gotten bold on the shop floor, the UAW took the same principle to the national stage when it vowed to organize 150,000 non-union auto workers, especially in the South.

“They didn’t say, ‘Let’s start at one or two plants and see if we can make this work,’” Kamper said. “They targeted All The Plants, all at once, and have committed serious resources to that work. The willingness to invest in the campaign, to brag about investing $40 million, represents a brashness we don't see enough of.”

“In order to launch these campaigns and move so quickly, the leadership had to relinquish some control and trust workers,” said Stephanie Luce, an author and professor of labor studies at the City University of New York. It goes to show: “We need leadership, investment, risk-taking, and creativity—from the top, and from the rank and file.”

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor