What It's Like Voting Union Inside Alabama Mercedes Plant

Three guys in red Stand-Up Strike (UAW) t-shirts, two bearded, stand outside on grass with arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling big.

Pro-union workers are showing their strength in numbers by proudly wearing union T-shirts and gear. Photo: UAW

In the election on whether to join the United Auto Workers, being held over five days this week at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, the union negotiated rules to try to minimize management influence. The vote is taking place inside the plant.

Workers are allowed to vote on company time, at designated intervals. A golf cart carrying a union observer, a company observer, and a National Labor Relations Board agent tours the 5,200-worker plant. The agent announces through a bullhorn, and by holding up a card, that workers in a certain area are now excused to go vote, if they choose to.

Jacob Ryan, a Mercedes worker and an observer for the union, said that management personnel are not supposed to be in the area at the time of the announcement. It is his job to make sure they are not herding workers to the polls.

Ryan said Mercedes had initially wanted its managers to be the ones making the announcement, but the union resisted.

Mercedes has been requiring people to watch anti-union videos at their team meetings at the start of the shift. The time for discussing quality or safety problems from the day before is cut short so people can watch these mandatory videos, according to Rob Lett, who works in the battery plant and has nine years’ seniority.


On day three of the voting, Ryan was guardedly optimistic. He said that in an area he formerly worked in, the body shop, the best he had hoped for was a 50/50 split and that was now his prediction.

In the paint shop, Ryan said, “when the announcement came, people were like ‘This is our time! Let’s go! Let’s get it!’” Both union and anti-union stickers are being worn on hardhats and clothing.



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Ryan was one of several Alabama auto workers who attended the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago in April. One workshop he attended was “Inoculation,“ about preparing your co-workers for management's reaction to organizing.

Deb Sandifer, a materials handler, said the voting where she acted as a union challenger (observing the voting process on the union's behalf and challenging potentially ineligible voters) took place in a curtained-off area that had been used to store empty boxes. She said management personnel were not in the area: “We made sure of that.“

She has seen more anti-union stickers in recent days and is “ready for the real thing”—the vote count on Friday morning, which she will be off work to observe.


Kay Finklea, a 23-year employee who works in quality, said even at the last minute, union supporters are still answering a lot of questions.

“We are staying present so people can see that we are here,” she said. “We want to be visible in numbers. We are telling each other to have on your union attire, have people see you.“

Workers are required to wear a Mercedes shirt when they are on the clock—but they can unbutton it and have a union shirt underneath. They also have bracelets, caps, and vests.

Ryan said they had been handing out shirts and trying to set up “voting parties.“ That’s where people on a certain team get in early and wear their union shirts and go vote all together.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.