The Message of Mercedes

The following article by Harold Meyerson originally appeared in The American Prospect.

Well, it wasn’t a completely bad week for American workers. At Disneyland, the 1,700 guys and gals who walk around dressed as Donald and Daisy voted overwhelmingly to join Actors’ Equity. In Minnesota, after the legislature rewrote an absurdly convoluted law, 23,000 employees of the state university will now be able to unionize (and they almost surely will).

But there’s no disputing UAW president Shawn Fain’s characterization of his union’s defeat in the election at the Mercedes plants in Alabama: “It stings.”

Following on the UAW’s historic unionization victory at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, labor’s expectations soared: The union had finally broken through the Mason-Dixon Line to win an election in the right-to-work-for-less South. To be sure, the Southern factories of the three legacy automakers with which the UAW has had contracts for more than 80 years were unionized under the terms of their nationwide contracts, and last year, the union also won the right to cover those companies’ new EV and battery factories as well. But to unionize the factories, mostly German, Japanese, and Korean-owned, that had set up shop in the South over the past 50 years: Those were battles the union had been fighting and losing for decades, until its victory at Chattanooga, under its new reform leadership.

So, yes: The abrupt and unexpected slamming on the brakes at Mercedes made clear that the corporate ancien régime was still a formidable foe. A few weeks before the election, Mercedes sacked its Alabama top man and brought in a new manager who raised wages and promised that the company would do better by its workers. It trotted out local folk heroes like U of A football coach Nick Saban to warn against the peril of unions (and say nothing of the U of A alums who’ve gone on to the NFL, where they’re all represented by a union). Public officials (invariably Republican) from Gov. Kay Ivey on down warned that going union would overturn the state’s carefully crafted economic model (its distinctive features, which also went unmentioned, being its failure to ever enact a minimum-wage law, its opposition to higher-paid work, and its legacy of slavery and convict labor). And the company itself used such tried-and-true tactics as compelling its employees to attend anti-union meetings—something that a number of progressive states have recently outlawed as a violation of workers’ First Amendment rights, but which remains standard practice across most of the nation. Not so in Germany, where a new law has forbidden German companies from obstructing their workers’ efforts to unionize even in their facilities outside Germany. And as is not the case in the U.S., the penalties for such violations include massive fines and possible loss of government contracts—which is why the UAW filed a complaint with Germany against Mercedes a few days before the votes were counted.

It does no disservice to the UAW to note that Volkswagen was the lowest-hanging Southern fruit, particularly since it’s the one German company where a majority of the board seats (not just half, as is customary in Germany) are held by worker and governmental representatives. The German union IG Metall, which represents that nation’s autoworkers, is a formidable force and exerted some pressure on both VW and Mercedes not to oppose the UAW’s efforts, but only VW felt compelled to largely heed its recommendation.

The other foreign-owned factories in the South—Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and the like—come from nations devoid of the laws that compel corporations to coexist with unions in Germany, for which reason they’re likely to oppose unionization efforts even more strenuously than Mercedes did.

So what’s a union to do?

Jane McAlevey of the UC Berkeley Labor Center has written that the union failed to mobilize sufficient community support to offset the politicos and football coaches who descended on the workers on the company’s behalf, and that it appeared to fall short of the level of supermajority support it needed to go to a vote. It may be, as she suggested, that the union, coming off its strike victory with the legacy three and its election victory at VW, was overconfident.

But absent some changes in labor laws, it’s still going to be an uphill slog to unionize private-sector manufacturing, retail, transportation, health care, and construction workers—all of whom management can illegally fire to deter unionization, so negligible are the penalties—no matter how good a job the union may do in its campaign. Joe Biden’s National Labor Relations Board has made the most pro-worker rulings since Harry Truman was president, but the kind of decisive restoration of workers’ rights that would really level the playing field still requires congressional action—and a judiciary that doesn’t reflexively favor management over workers. Until then, the UAW has proved that victories like the one at Chattanooga are possible, but only if they’ve done everything right and have some extra oomph that can be applied to the employer.

 

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