With a Velvet Glove, Mercedes Tries to Punch Down Alabama Union Momentum

CEO Michael Göbel spoke to workers during a previous captive-audience meeting in February. Since the union drive went public, Mercedes has eliminated two-tier pay, converted all current temporary workers to permanent employees, and instituted a new bonus system modeled on profit-sharing at the Big 3 auto companies. (Photo is from a a private employee Facebook group.)

Workers at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama were forced to attend 20-minute anti-union meetings with the company’s top management today.

Recordings obtained by Labor Notes show top management dangled carrots and put on a contrite-boss act, promising to do better.

Workers filed with the National Labor Relations Board on April 5 for the first-ever election to unionize the 5,200 people who work at the plant.

Mercedes claims to be neutral in the election, but it’s also listed as a supporter of the Business Council of Alabama’s anti-union website, Alabama Strong. The Auto Workers (UAW) has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges accusing the company of retaliating against pro-union workers.

“The meeting was a waste of time,” said battery plant worker David Johnston afterwards. “It was meaningless other than trying to develop sympathy from their workforce, saying they’ve held true to their promises and commitments made—committing to stay neutral, yet they couldn’t be anything further, especially after involving themselves with the anti-union organization Alabama Strong.”

Even after the captive-audience meeting, the momentum keeps building. “One of the guys in my shop that is on the fence told me we gained votes from that meeting,” said Jacob Ryan, a body shop worker who started out as a temp.


This is the second such meeting. The first was in February, after workers reached 30 percent on union cards and took their campaign public. The company then announced it would eliminate two-tier pay, convert all current temporary workers to permanent employees, and institute a new bonus system modeled on profit-sharing at the Big 3 auto companies.

In today’s meeting, Vice President of Quality Ashim Manchanda elaborated on “what we are doing to react quickly to changing conditions when it comes to hiring strategies and compensation for our team members.”

He didn’t say what exactly those changing conditions were, but to workers it’s clear the company is trying to stem the momentum of their union campaign—a momentum so great that even anti-union workers recognize how different it is from previous drives that fizzled quickly.

“It might be a sign of the times,” anti-union worker Jay White told NPR about pro-union sentiment in the plant. “It may be a generational situation.”


The morning meeting opened with remarks from Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) President and CEO Michael Göbel, who shared some basics about the upcoming election.

Then Manchanda announced that workers will receive the first $700 quarterly performance bonus April 26, and talked about improvements with onboarding new hires.

The plant has struggled to retain workers and suffers from understaffing, especially on grueling assembly lines where workers are denied bathroom breaks.

“We are also taking seriously the feedback that your management should be approachable and more engaged on the shop floor,” Manchanda said.



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Workers have said management uses favoritism to dole out overtime and other perks through what’s known as “group leader discretion.” Sometimes, workers say, the favoritism is racially coded.

The company’s solution? It’s going to run “focus groups”—in other words, plenty more captive-audience meetings ahead of the union vote.


When Göbel retook the mic, he groused about a pro-union talking point first reported in Labor Notes last November.

A perpetual challenge for the UAW in the South has been that auto manufacturing jobs pay well above other options in these low-wage states. There’s also less familiarity with unions, especially among younger workers. The unionization rate in Alabama is 7.2 percent.

When the automakers located their plants in the South, these points factored into their calculation.

It’s the Alabama discount,” Jeremy Kimbrell told Labor Notes last November. He was then earning $32 an hour, after 24 years on the job at Mercedes. Workers now top out at $34 an hour—compared to $47 an hour at the Big 3 automakers by the end of the current contract.

As part of a benefits package for locating in Alabama, America’s fourth-poorest state gave Mercedes a $42.6 million subsidy for plant construction. For a while the state also paid the wages of trainee workers. The then-governor was forced to borrow from the state’s pension fund at 9 percent interest to meet its financial obligation to the company.

Meanwhile, “in 17 years, we have gotten a raise of roughly $4.50,” said Ryan. “We are making luxury vehicles. The company is making record profits year after year, while taking more and more from us.”

Reacting to such complaints, Göbel got defensive. “We’ve been hearing a lot from the UAW about why Mercedes came to Alabama,” he said. “They say we came to take advantage of Alabama workers and to take advantage of the so-called Alabama discount. Respectfully, they weren’t here.”

It’s a familiar employer tactic to portray the union as an outsider and a third party—“they weren’t here.” But this campaign has been strikingly grassroots, run by a committee of workers inside the plant.

Göbel tapped Rusty Jones, a senior manager in the body shop who started in 1996, to tell a cornier version of the factory’s origin story: “Mercedes chose Alabama because of the people,” Jones said.

The plant started with one model, the popular Mercedes M-Class SUV, and expanded. “Now through hard work, dedication, and success, we’re trusted to build seven models at our plant today,” Jones said.

Surely Mercedes workers can also be trusted to make their own decision on union representation.

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.luis@labornotes.org