Southern Auto Workers Are Rising

A group of a hundreds autoworkers gather outside with red shirts and fists raised.

Mercedes-Benz workers in Vance, Alabama filed for an election today to vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers. Photo: UAW

Auto workers are gearing up to smash through anti-union bulwarks in Alabama and Tennessee.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the only Volkswagen factory in the world without a union, votes will be counted April 19 as 4,300 workers who make the Atlas SUV and the ID.4 electric vehicle decide whether to join the United Auto Workers.

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

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

Next up will be Mercedes. Workers in Vance, Alabama, at one of only two nonunion Mercedes-Benz factories on the planet, filed for an election today; a vote will take place from May 13 through 16, with the ballot count scheduled for the 17.

The 5,000 workers there make the highly profitable luxury GLE SUVs and the Maybach GLS, which retails for upwards of $170,000.

“You never know when a person goes inside a booth,” said Mercedes worker Jeremy Kimbrell. “Nobody’s watching, and the company’s got a month to scare the hell out of them. But I feel pretty good about the vote. Workers finally stood up for themselves and are ending the Alabama discount.”

More than 10,000 workers at 13 non-union carmakers across two dozen facilities nationwide have signed union cards since last November, when the UAW announced an ambitious goal to organize 150,000 workers at major non-union auto and battery plants.

That roughly mirrors the UAW’s existing Big 3 membership.


“Each employee has their why—why they wanted to start the process to form a union,” Vaughn said.

The main issues at VW are quality health care, retirement security, safety, and paid sick days—currently they get none.

“In mid-February, we had quite a few people coming in sick because they didn’t want to get penalized,” said assembly line worker Isaac Meadows. “And then of course they got everybody else sick, and then we have a whole bunch of people out. Everybody’s getting disciplinary action and losing bonuses just because they’re sick and they can't come to work.”

Workers do have a time-off bank, but annual plant closures for retooling eat into it. Meadows gets 96 hours of paid time off. “When we have our scheduled shutdowns, the company takes most of it,” he said. “And then when we do come back to work, we’re required to work a lot of Saturdays.”


The vote at Mercedes follows two decades of attempts that never got that far. What changed?

“The union got out of the way and let the workers organize,” said Kimbrell, a veteran of multiple failed campaigns in his 25 years here. “They’ll talk to a co-worker and be more honest than they will with a union organizer who calls them on the phone that they don't know.”

In past union drives, said Mercedes worker Jacob Ryan, UAW organizers wouldn’t let organizing committee members talk to their co-workers inside the plant. Instead, the union set up a tent across the street for workers to sign a paper card.

“That’s sneaking around—acting like you’re doing something wrong,” Kimbrell said. Worker leaders struggled to build up a committee; after a month, recruits would lose interest and stop answering their phones or showing up for meetings.

In 2014, a worker who had supported the union, Kirk Garner, publicly asked the UAW to stop the organizing drive. “This has gone on for two and half years, and people are burnt out,” he said, after the pro-union committee dwindled from 180 workers to 50, according to Stephen Silvia’s recent book The UAW’s Southern Gamble.

Another worker, Jim Spitzley, tried to organize with the Machinists instead. “There’s a lot of people that will not sign a card with the UAW,” he said. “They’re tired of it. They’ve done it before and nothing has come of it.”

Both Garner and Spitzley are backing the current drive.


After the Great Recession, Mercedes management increased production volume to keep up with European luxury manufacturers Audi and BMW. The chief operating officer made the pitch to workers with a chart showing how far behind Mercedes was.

To increase the company’s competitive edge, “we changed the way we went about things,” Kimbrell said. “From being more focused on quality and stopping the line, pointing out issues, making sure that it's built right the first time, it became about volume.”

That meant speedup and injuries, a plant expansion with additional shifts, and the introduction of temps who came to represent a quarter of the workforce. “Thanks for your continued flexibility,” every memo said.

To Ryan, that was a slap in the face. “It’s not flexible,” he said. “We don’t have a choice. One of the reasons for me wanting this union—it’s time for them to be flexible. They’ve flexed us till we’ve broken.”

Meanwhile, then-UAW President Bob King was touting the union’s embrace of “innovation, flexibility, and continuous improvement,” leaning into transnational union cooperation with IG Metall and Daimler works councils.



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In these years, Kimbrell said, the argument for a union was a “marginal” increase in benefits and pay, at best. Once a UAW assistant director even tried to sell him on two-tier pay. “Two-tier was an abomination to me,” he said. “It disgusts me. I told the guy, ‘I will never sign a contract with two-tier pay on it.’”

“You can’t draw red lines,” the union official said. “By god, I just drew one,” Kimbrell said. “You can’t tell me what to think!”


But last fall, Kimbrell watched on Facebook Live as UAW President Shawn Fain threw Stellantis's contract offer in the trash.

When the Big 3 auto bosses moaned that workers’ demands would wreck the economy, Fain shot back, “We’ll wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class and not the working class.”

Collaboration-as-usual unionism was over.

In November, Kimbrell and about 20 co-workers spoke to UAW Organizing Director Brian Shepherd, while weighing the option of an independent union. After some contentious meetings, they chose the UAW.

The union agreed to let workers run their own campaign inside the plant, giving them access to real-time information about cards coming in and flexibility on when to file for an election. The workers credit the UAW for its research, legal, and communications support—but this time, they say, the heart of the campaign is their collective force inside the plant.

Workers seek out openly pro-union leaders on the floor to ask how they can help with outreach. The committee is organized into subgroups, with visible leaders across the plant. The campaign has relied especially on people whose jobs allow them to roam freely, such as material handlers.

Union leaders used to emphasize their role as master negotiators on behalf of a passive workforce. But now the union has loosened the reins and support has grown fast, keeping the drive in the headlines and generating fresh momentum: a virtuous cycle.

These drives share some of the bottom-up dynamism of the Starbucks Workers United campaign. Union-busters have noticed the parallel too; in captive-audience meetings they point to Starbucks workers struggling to win a contract.


Lobbyists and politicians in Tennessee and Alabama have mobilized against the union drives—tactics that figured heavily in the past UAW failures at VW.

Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp called a press conference (on April Fool’s Day) outside the Chattanooga plant to announce that “the UAW is a sinking ship.”

“We employees are the union, and to have our county mayor come out against the union was really disheartening,” said Vaughn. “Had an election been going on for the county mayor seat right now, I can guarantee you that he would have lost by a landslide, probably to a write-in candidate.”

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International CEO Michael Göbel told workers that forming a union would mean strikes, costly dues, and roadblocks to conflict resolution, Bloomberg reported. “I don’t believe the UAW can help us to be better,” Göbel said.

Alabama business groups have set up anti-union websites and dotted the highways near the plant with billboards. They’ve also tried to sponsor anti-union groups in the plant, but without much success, beyond whispers of a few workers pledging to withdraw their union cards, according to Kimbrell. Compare that to a previous drive when 200 workers joined an anti-union group.

“The Alabama model for economic success is under attack,” wrote Governor Kay Ivey in an op-ed opposing the union campaigns at Mercedes and Hyundai, calling car manufacturing one of the state’s “crown jewel industries.”

“She’s damn right it is!” Fain responded on April 2. “It’s under attack because workers are fed up with getting screwed.”


Since the last union efforts, the workforce has become majority Black. When the company used one of its Black managers to spew union-busting talking points, workers saw through it and laughed off the company’s “pathetic” attempt to pander.

None of the four major auto plants in Alabama—Mercedes, Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda—nor their suppliers are located where Black majorities live. But workers like Moesha Chandler have moved to get auto jobs.

She grew up in Uniontown, a small town about an hour away, with no grocery stores and no high-paying jobs.

At Mercedes she found higher pay, but little respect. Group leaders use “discretion,” she says, to abuse their authority, grilling workers about bathroom breaks, denying them a break even to take insulin.

“That’s what plowed the fields—the treatment,” Kimbrell said. “And then the workers, we cultivated the anger at the company.”

In previous organizing drives, the UAW presented itself as the best way to collaborate for win-win solutions—even promising in advance not to go for “uncompetitive” wages. But what worker needs a union to help kiss the boss’s ass?

Kimbrell prefers Fain’s approach: openly adversarial. “People see that, and they’re like, yeah, we don’t want to hold hands,” he said. “We’ll tell them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. We don’t want that, we want this. And we’re the workers, so yeah, we’re not your friends.’”

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor