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Alabama Auto Workers Give Thoughts on LaborNotes

In Relay Race to Organize the South, Volkswagen Workers Pass the Baton to Mercedes Workers

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, April 30, 2024

Michael Göbel, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, stepped down from his post yesterday, according to a video message that workers were shown.

Göbel had groused in an April captive-audience meeting about a worker’s claim that Mercedes had come for the “Alabama discount”: low wages. His departure is another win for Mercedes-Benz workers, who already scored pay bumps and an end to wage tiers—and they haven’t even voted on the union yet.

The company and Alabama politicians are ramping up their anti-union campaign as an election draws near. The 5,200 Mercedes workers at a factory complex and electric battery plant outside Tuscaloosa will vote May 13-16 on whether to join the United Auto Workers, with a vote count May 17.

They’re following close on the heels of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who notched a historic victory April 19—the first auto plant election win for the UAW in the South since the 1940s.

The VW vote was a blowout: 2,628 yes to 985 no, with 84 percent turnout. The National Labor Relations Board certified the results April 30, meaning VW is legally required to begin bargaining with the union.

Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Vote Union

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, April 19, 2024

In a watershed victory, workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted tonight "UAW, yes!" The company's sole non-union plant will finally join the rest of the world.

“If Volkswagen workers at plants in Germany and Mexico have unions, why not us?” said equipment operator Briam Calderon in Spanish, ahead of the vote.

"Just like Martin Luther King had a dream, we have a dream at Volkswagen that we will be UAW one day," said Renee Berry, a logistic worker on the organizing committee who's worked at the plant for 14 years.

The UAW is riding a wave of momentum after winning landmark contracts at the Big 3 automakers last year. Production workers at Volkswagen earn $23 per hour and top out above $32, compared to $43 for production workers at Ford’s Spring Hill assembly plant by the contract’s end in 2028.

“We could see what other auto workers were making compared to what we were making,” said Yolanda Peoples, a member of the organizing committee on the engine assembly line.

To head off a union drive, Volkswagen boosted wages 11 percent to match the immediate raise UAW members received at Ford. Peoples saw her pay jump from $29 to $32 an hour.

“When they went on strike, we paid close attention just to see what happened. Once they won their contract, it changed a lot of people from anti-union to pro-union members,” said Peoples.

Today’s vote was a key test of whether the union could springboard the strike gains to propel new organizing in longtime anti-union bastions in the South, the anchors of big investments in the electric-vehicle transition.

The vote was 2,628 in favor of forming a union to 985 against. There were seven challenged ballots, and three voided; 4,326 workers were eligible to vote.

Previous efforts at this plant in 2014 and 2019 had gone down to narrow defeats. Ahead of the vote, workers said their co-workers had learned from those losses.

They brushed off threats that a union would make the plant less competitive and lead it to close. After all, VW invested $800 million here in 2019 to produce the I.D. Electric SUV.

“We have seen the enemy’s playbook twice, and they don’t have any new moves,” said Zach Costello, a member of the organizing committee and a trainer on the assembly line. “It’s the greatest hits now.”

The organizing committee beat the predictable anti-union talking points with conversations across the plant.

“At the end of the day, we’ve been focusing all our time and attention on the people who matter,” said organizing committee member Isaac Meadows, “and it’s our co-workers who cast votes.

“Now Mercedes workers [in Alabama] are right behind us. We’ve set the stage for them to win and they will create the momentum for Hyundai and Toyota.”

Mercedes workers will vote from May 13-16, with a ballot count on the 17.

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

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, April 10, 2024

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.

Bus Drivers Strike with Climate Activists in 57 German Cities

By Berit Ehmke and Yanira Wolf - Labor Notes, April 8, 2024

Public transit workers across Germany have broken new ground by coordinating our contracts—nearly all of them nationwide have expired over the last four months—and shutting down bus systems with strikes in 57 cities.

To add to the pressure, we’ve done something new for our union and for Germany: we’ve formed an alliance between local transport workers and climate activists, including the students who have been leading massive school walkouts.

The devastating effects of climate change are already rocking Germany: major heat waves, flooding, and water shortages. A growing movement demanding climate action has made real headway—our energy and industrial sectors have almost halved their climate pollution over the past 30 years. But on transportation, our third-biggest source, we’ve made nearly zero progress.

To beat climate change we need more buses on the road. We’re building a movement to double bus service. After three decades of cuts and privatization, we need a major federal funding boost.

But these jobs have become so tough that most agencies have huge worker shortages. To make the climate impact real, we’ll also need to raise the floor for wages, breaks, and schedules—making this a good enough job that workers will sign on and stick around.

Southern Auto Workers Are Rising

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, April 5, 2024

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 is expected soon after the VW vote.

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.

Toyota Workers at Critical Engine Plant Launch UAW Union Drive

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 8, 2024

Auto workers at a Toyota engine plant in Troy, Missouri, have signed up 30 percent of their 1,000 co-workers to join the United Auto Workers (UAW)—a first at Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, on the heels of the union’s announcements of organizing campaigns at Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz.

Workers at the plant just outside St. Louis build 2.6 million cylinder heads per year. Should they stop building them, it would cut off supplies for all of the company’s engine plants in North America. Toyota is still working to build up its supply of chips and other inventory, following pandemic lockdowns and global supply-chain snarls.

In the body of a vehicle, these cylinder heads are as essential as human lungs, controlling the flow of air and fuel into the combustion chamber, powering a vehicle’s performance on the road.

In a new video, “We Keep Toyota Running,” workers describe the steep cost at which that performance comes. “People say Toyota engines last forever,” a worker says in the video. “We know what makes it possible: our hands, our backs, our knees, our work. We carry the proof every day: injuries, surgeries, disabilities.”

Ford’s Battery Flagship Socked by Mold Sickness, Workers Say

By Schuyler Mitchell and Keith Brower Brown - Labor Notes, February 22, 2024

The smell of mold hit James “Lucky” Dugan the moment he walked into the plant.

Last fall, Dugan was one of thousands of union construction workers to arrive in small-town Glendale, Kentucky, to build a vast factory for Ford and SK On, a South Korean company. The plant, when completed, will make batteries for nearly a million electric pickup trucks each year.

When Dugan walked in, huge wooden boxes containing battery-making machines, largely shipped from overseas, were laid across the mile-long factory floor. Black streaks on those wooden boxes, plus the smell, immediately raised alarm bells for workers. But for months, those concerns were met with little remedy from the contractors hired by BlueOval to oversee construction.

Dugan and scores of others now believe they are in the midst of a health crisis at the site. “We don’t get sick pay,” Dugan said. “You’re sick, you’re out of luck.”

The BlueOval SK Battery Park, billed to open in 2025, is a banner project for President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a program of public subsidies and financing to companies moving away from fossil fuels. The Department of Energy has pledged to support the construction of three BlueOval plants in Tennessee and Kentucky with a $9.2 billion low-cost loan.

But under all the high-tech green fanfare, several construction workers, including some who wished to be anonymous, say the site has been gripped by mold and respiratory illness—medieval hazards that workers feel managers neglected in the pressure to quickly open the plant.

Argentinian Working People Fight Milei’s Far-Right Government with a General Strike

By Clara Marticorena and Julia Soul - Labor Notes, February 26, 2024

More than 1.5 million people took part in a general strike in Argentina on January 24 against a new president and his aggressive anti-union “reforms.”

Self-described “liberal-libertarian” Javier Milei, who won the November 22 presidential elections, is an economist who became popular as a panelist on a TV show. He advocated for ending the “privileges” of the “casta”—defined as corrupt politicians and social and union leaders taking advantage of “good people.”

With a new party, Freedom Advances (La Libertad Avanza), Milei won the votes of a range of people, from working-class people disappointed and angry with the incumbent Peronist government to the middle and ruling classes opposed to state intervention in the economy and income distribution.

His government’s new austerity program has already dealt a heavy blow to the pockets of working people. Days after he took office, Milei froze public workers’ wages, social assistance programs, and pensions, imposed a 118 percent devaluation of the Argentine peso, and increased tariffs for energy, public transport, and public services.

Real wages have plummeted nearly 15 percent. The government has also cut off food supplies to a lot of community organizations running “comedores comunitarios”: places where the unemployed and poor families can get some meals.

It seems that, for La Libertad Avanza, “the casta” is the working class and the poorest people, and its “privileges” are in fact labor and social rights.

Hyundai Workers Roll the Union On in Alabama

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, February 1, 2024

Auto workers at Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, have signed up more than 30 percent of their nearly 4,000 co-workers in an ambitious drive to unionize.

The Auto Workers (UAW) announced the organizing breakthrough with a new video, “Montgomery Can’t Wait,” where workers link the labor and civil rights movements: “Montgomery, the city where Rosa Parks sat down, and where thousands of Hyundai workers are ready to Stand Up.”

“There’s something about our fight to unionize being homegrown that makes it just that much sweeter,” said Quichelle Liggins, a 12-year quality inspector at Hyundai.

“All I can tell my people to do is be bold and intentional. Just like the leaders of the civil rights movement, we’re linking together one by one. One person had to say, ‘Hey, it's time for us to make a difference!’ And then several other people had to agree, and now we have a group of workers that feel the same way.”

Workers in this plant assemble the Santa Fe and Tucson SUVs, the Santa Cruz pickup truck, the Genesis GV70 luxury SUV, and the Electrified GV70.

They’re the third plant to reach the 30 percent milestone in the UAW’s new organizing push, just weeks after workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and on the heels of those at Tennessee’s Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in December.

The UAW announced Monday that more than 10,000 workers across 13 non-union plants have signed union cards since last November, when the union announced an ambitious goal to organize 150,000 autoworkers. That’s roughly the same number as are covered now under the Big Three contracts.

Once workers reach the threshold of 30 percent on signed union authorization cards, under the UAW’s rubric, they take their organizing public. At the 50 percent mark, they rally with their co-workers, families, neighbors, and community and union leaders, including UAW President Shawn Fain.

As soon as 70 percent of workers at a given plant sign cards, and their organizing committee has grown to include workers from every shift and job classification, they will demand voluntary recognition of their union. If the company refuses, the workers file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

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