What's next is being asked by those on both sides of this week's union vote at Mercedes Benz? It is the day after a majority of Mercedes Benz employees at the company’s Tuscaloosa County plant delivered a stunning setback to the United Auto Workers aggressive southern auto plant organizing effort. When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finished tallying the weeks’ worth of balloting, the count showed 2,642 no votes to 2,045 yes votes. That is a strong 56% victory against the union.

The results flashed not just across Alabama but across the US and the world. Afterall, the union headquarters in Detroit, the foreign automakers in Europe and Asia with plants in the south and the Biden Administration which had endorsed the UAW effort had a vested interest in the outcome.

The UAW had been on a roll, their six-week stand-up strike win against Detroit’s “Big 3” automakers had won record concessions and fueled the fire for President Shawn Fain’s $40 million union organizing campaign at non-union auto plants in Alabama and six other vociferously anti-union southern states.

A Union win had looked inevitable to many

The union tidal wave began to look unstoppable after contact wins at Daimler Trucks and a massive pro-union vote at Chattanooga’s previously non-union, but more accepting Volkswagen plant.

The union, the left leaning media and politicians and others in heavily unionized states were predicting another historic pro-union victory but it looks like they misread the tea leaves.

While Fain launched his aggressive bid to unionize Mercedes and talked of a new day for unions in the south, veteran labor observers in the south were pumping the brakes of optimism a bit, warning that Mercedes and the State of Alabama would be a far more resistant foe than the relatively compliant VW plant. And they were.

As the company mounted a strong anti-union operation, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, the state legislature and other southern governors launched a counter offensive. Mercedes ordered meetings explaining their side, published posters and flyers, launched websites and conducted numerous other efforts to counter the UAW offensive. Public officials cautioned that a union win could destroy the south’s booming economy and in the long run cost jobs.

Perhaps the smartest move the company made during the election runup was to replace its executive leadership. That seemed to sway a lot of employees who were unhappy with the previous leadership but were still uncommitted.

Because the union achieved a supermajority of workers signing cards supporting the union and a vote, many labor experts believe the UAW misread the meaning. In hindsight it looks like those who signed those cards wanted to nudge Mercedes to make changes, not to actually unionize.

Is this the end or just the end of the beginning?

So where do things go from here? Anyone who thinks this is the end of organizing efforts at Mercedes is naive. Anyone who thinks the defeat will end the union effort across the south is mistaken.

Fain told a press conference the outcome is “just a bump in the road”. He also pointed out that the pro-union workers may not have brought a union to the main plant in Vance and battery plant in Woodstock, but they won the change they wanted.

"Workers won serious gains in this campaign, don't lose sight of that. The UAW bump! They killed wage tiers, they got rid of a CEO that had no interest in improving conditions for these workers," he said. "Mercedes is a better place thanks to this campaign and these courageous workers."

The buildup to the vote was emotional. The aggressive union effort split employees at both plants. In some cases, it may have damaged long-standing friendships. The company and workers on both sides of the issue must now find a way to overcome the schism and somehow rebuild the "team" that has built more than 4-million vehicles since the plant opened.

But is the vote tally the end of the story? Speaking of the 2,000+ employees who voted for the union, Fain reminded reporters, "What happens next is up to them. Justice isn't just about one vote or one campaign, it's about getting a voice and getting your fair share." That sounds a lot like the late New York Yankee Catcher Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” To use a Civil War analogy, the south won most of the battles but lost the war to the union because they never gave up.

The union has a week to challenge the results. Don’t be surprised if they do.  

The UAW has already filed a half dozen charges claiming union busting activities by Mercedes. Fain vows to pursue those charges with the union friendly NLRB. Among the allegations are, “… the company disciplined employees for discussing unionization at work, prohibited distribution of union material and paraphernalia, surveilled employees, discharged union supporters, forced employees to attend captive audience meetings, and made statements suggesting that union activity is futile” according to NLRB summery of the allegations.

Similar union charges, a typical union ploy, have been filed against Hyundai in Montgomery, the UAW’s next target, and other non-union plants. In February, the UAW announced that 30% of the workers at Hyundai had signed cards to join the union.

For their part Mercedes vowed, “it had not interfered with or retaliated against any worker in their right to pursue union representation.”

The Friday vote was seen as a bellwether for the ability of newly resurgent labor groups to successfully organize in a part of the country known for keeping union activity away. But this is not your grandfather's or even your father’s UAW. Fain is dogged in his desire to expand UAW influence by enlarging its membership after years of decline.

Fain even hinted at the future, "Everything these workers have done has provided optimism around the nation," he said at the UAW hall in Coaling. Addressing the claimed "egregious" behavior on the behalf of MBUSI management he seems to holdout out hope the investigations by the NLRB and German government will go the union’s way and clear a path to a revote.

The union loss was, “… clearly damaging to the union and other organizing attempts near-term, but it is the beginning, not the end,” Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University California, Berkeley told Reuters News Service. He blamed worker unfamiliarity with the union and pushback from Mercedes for the loss. (Note: Some of the workers who voted "no" this week are the same ones who defeated a previous UAW union attempt at Mercedes a decade ago.)

Although important, Mercedes is just one battle in the union invasion

Even if the UAW decides not to challenge the results and the investigation into Mercedes purported anti-labor practices proves fruitless, the union has a year before it can again mount another union push at the plant. In the meantime, many in the union hope organizing campaigns at the other non-union plants in Alabama and across the south will be more successful and serve as an encouragement to the Mercedes employees who voted for the union to try again.

The UAW placed a lot of their “new image”, rhetoric, money, and effort into the Mercedes vote. A win would have energy charged, not just the UAW, but organized labor as a whole toward attempting to bring the independent thinking of southern workers under the “union label”.

The Detroit union bosses had looked at the numbers and seen how many Americans from union dominated states had moved south and thought that could be enough to change the union stigma here.

Will the loss derail the union’s southern strategy? Probably not, but it will cause Fain and UAW leaders to rethink their game plan. They have now learned that the win at VW was a mirage of sorts because Volkswagen didn’t put up a strong resistance.

The other companies of southern automakers have learned from the united front applied by Mercedes, political and civic leaders and will adapt that to their defensive efforts.

What happened when the votes were counted in Tuscaloosa County yesterday taught valuable lessons to both sides of the union struggle. The side that does the best job of adapting, overcoming and improvising will win in the future.

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