Fain and workers

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain stands with Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama in 2024.

(Photo: United Auto Workers)

'We'll Be Back,' Says UAW Chief Shawn Fain After 'Tough Loss' in Alabama

Organizers are expected to continue their effort, drawing inspiration from a recent success in Tennessee that followed two defeats.

Workers at a pair of Mercedes-Benz plants near Tuscaloosa, Alabama narrowly voted against joining the United Auto Workers this week, according to a preliminary tally on Friday.

As of press time, the UAW webpage had the National Labor Relations Board tally at 2,045 in favor of joining the union (45%) and 2,642 opposed (56%).

Voting at the large facility in Vance and the battery plant in Woodstock kicked off Monday and wrapped up Friday morning. Speaking to reporters Friday evening, UAW president Shawn Fain said that it was "obviously not the result we wanted" but "we'll be back in Vance."

"These courageous workers reached out to us because they wanted justice," Fain said of the Mercedes employees. "They led us. They led this fight, and that's what this is all about—and what happens next is up to them."

"It's a David v. Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle but ultimately David will win the war."

"Justice isn't just about one vote or one campaign, it's about getting a voice and getting your fair share," he continued, noting that "workers won serious gains in this campaign."

Fain added that "it's a David v. Goliath fight. Sometimes Goliath wins a battle but ultimately David will win the war."

The Alabama election followed a UAW win in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Volkswagen workers last month voted to join the union.

Labor reporter Mike Elk noted that the "tough loss" in Alabama was "not a blowout," and organizers now have "a solid base that future campaigns can build on like they did at Volkswagen," where winning a union election took three rounds of voting.

The UAW has ramped up organizing in the U.S. South since securing contract victories last year following a "Stand Up Strike" targeting Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the American automobile industry's "Big Three."

The Alabama organizing effort has garnered support from progressives and union workers around the world. The Washington, D.C.-based Global Labor Justice said Friday that "we stand with Mercedes autoworkers who are voting to join UAW to better their lives and help end the so-called 'Alabama discount.' It's time we end the U.S. South and Global South 'discounts' that allow corporations to perpetuate a race to the bottom that hurts all workers."

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in U.S. Southern states have shown "how scared they are that workers organizing with UAW to improve jobs and wages," as the Economic Policy Institute put it last month, after Govs. Kay Ivey of Alabama, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, Bill Lee of Tennessee, and Greg Abbott of Texas issued a joint statement accusing the union of coming to their states to "threaten our jobs and the values we live by."

Mercedes has said that it "fully respects our team members' choice whether to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure every team member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice." However, both employees and the UAW accused the company of union-busting ahead of the vote.

During his remarks to the press Friday evening, Fain charged that "this company engaged in egregious illegal behavior" and pointed to ongoing probes by German and U.S. officials into "the intimidation and harassment that they inflicted on their own workers."

The Alabama facilities are operated by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, a subsidiary of a German parent company. The UAW said Thursday that Germany's Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control has launched an investigation into worker claims.

"Autoworkers in Alabama should have the same rights and be treated with the same respect as autoworkers in Germany," Jeremy Kimbrell, who has worked at one of the Alabama plants since 1999, said in a statement. "My coworkers and I are grateful to the German government for taking our testimonies and the evidence we have provided seriously and taking the first steps to hold the lawless, reckless Mercedes managers in Alabama accountable for their action."

Mercedes toldQuartz that it "has not interfered with or retaliated against any team member in their right to pursue union representation" and is "fully cooperating with the authorities."

As The Washington Postreported Friday:

Alabama business leaders, politicians, and clergy have also stepped in to warn workers against voting for the union...

In a video posted this week on a Mercedes-run website about the union election, Rev. Matthew Wilson, a pastor and city council member in Tuscaloosa, told workers of the union vote: "This one change I would be careful of... As a lifelong resident of Tuscaloosa, we have come too far to turn around now."

ESPN sportscaster and retired University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban also spoke to Mercedes workers this week. According toAxios, "Saban owns multiple Mercedes dealerships and has reportedly said he does not endorse the UAW's campaign."

Kay Finklea, a Mercedes employee and member of the UAW's voluntary organizing committee, told the outlet that "they don't stop the line for hardly anything, but they shut the line down and they had a meeting with Nick Saban in there to talk to us about teamwork and the tactics and methods he used as a football coach."

The Alabama effort is widely seen as a test case for unionizing more auto workers in the South. Before the results were announced, Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, toldReuters that "if the union wins, they improve their momentum dramatically for future organizing."

This post has been updated to correct the reference to Global Labor Justice.

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