Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, April 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Support for unionization grows at Southern auto plants

When the United Auto Workers negotiated new contracts with the Big Three automakers last year, workers at non-union plants in Alabama and Tennessee took note of clear discrepancies in pay and benefits.

(CN) — When Jeremy Kimbrell landed a job 24 years ago at the Mercedes Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, he thought his life had taken a turn for the better. 

Just 22-years-old at the time, his experience included working in a clothing warehouse and for a roofing company. The pay was low, the benefits were meager, and Kimbrell wasn’t exactly fond of the hot and dangerous work. 

Through an acquaintance, Kimbrell heard the newly minted Mercedes plant was hiring temporary workers with the possibility to be retained as employees. The jobs offered pay of up to $20 per hour, health insurance, vacation and sick days and a retirement plan. The incentives fell short of what union workers were earning at the so-called “Big Three” automakers of General Motors, Stellantis and Ford. Still, it was “pretty good for Alabama,” Kimbrell recalled thinking at the time.

But as the years passed and the economy evolved, Kimbrell and other Mercedes workers began to feel increasingly neglected. Pay raises became smaller and less frequent, while promotions slowed to a trickle. Management constantly increased production goals and whittled away at employee liberties. 

Temporary workers became less likely to be offered full-time employment — and even when they were, their wages were capped at lower levels than more senior employees. Turnover increased. 

“Around the time of the Great Recession is when the workers began to feel like we were being treated like a dime a dozen,” Kimbrell said in a phone interview Feb. 13. “That has led to where we are now, where people are finally fed up.”

Since January, at least 30% of workers at both the Mercedes and Hyundai plants in Alabama — plus more than half of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee — have signed union authorization cards seeking recognition from their employers to unionize. That’s according to the United Auto Workers, a major union focused on the automobile industry with more than 400,000 current members.

If the union reaches a 70% authorization threshold at any facility, the company can either voluntarily recognize the union (they rarely do) or employees can file cards with the National Labor Relations Board to oversee an election. If such a vote passes, it would be a major inroad for organized labor in the historically un-unionized South. Beginning around the 1970s, automobile manufacturers began shifting production to the American South, drawn by — among other things — weaker labor protections and smaller union numbers.

There have been previous attempts to unionize the Mercedes plant and other auto manufacturing facilities in the South, where unions represent employees at a much lower rate than the rest of the nation. But until last year, when Big Three employees represented by the United Auto Workers renegotiated contracts to push their pay scale north of $40 per hour, those attempts have always been unsuccessful. 

That may be changing, as workers at non-union plants see the gains that UAW bargaining has brought workers elsewhere in the industry, said Dan Cornfield, a professor of sociology, political science, and American studies at Vanderbilt University. He pointed to the example of Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant, where a majority of workers now support a union.

 “It’s a very strong sign of pro-union sentiment well in advance of an actual representation election,” Cornfield said in an interview. “The UAW is capitalizing on its tremendous collective bargaining gains recently with the Big Three to try to encourage workers to unionize new plants [and] to show that unionization pays off.”

Because Southern states remained largely dependent on an agricultural economy well into the Industrial Revolution, union representation in the South has long lagged behind the rest of the nation. Nationwide, union membership declined throughout the late 20th century as automation and outsourcing increased.


Now, amid record corporate profits and a widening wealth gap, union membership is back on the upswing. Meanwhile, workers in non-union factories like those in the South are more likely to evaluate their own benefits in the context of a global market rather than a local one, Cornfield said. 

“Is this the best job I can get here, and [is it] a lot better than flipping hamburgers?” Cornfield asked rhetorically, highlighting some of the questions that non-unionized Southern workers are now asking themselves. “How does it play in terms of automobile workers everywhere, and why should a Southern worker get paid less than a Northern worker?”

On the ground in Alabama, Kimbrell confirmed that he and his colleagues were asking themselves questions like these in the wake of the Big Three contracts. 

“I’ve watched our pay and our benefits go to the pot,” he said. “They've always been below the Big Three, even while our vehicles are more profitable and our company is more profitable.” 

Members of the United Auto Workers union walk out of Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Using the Big Three contracts as a starting point, Kimbrell thinks autoworkers in Alabama should demand the same pay and benefits as their Northern counterparts. “We build the same vehicles as good or better than anybody else,” he said. “We shouldn’t be paid less because some politician or some business leader said those workers in Alabama deserve less money.” 

Indeed, elected officials in deep-red Alabama have already begun to fight back against unionization efforts. In January, Republican Governor Kay Ivey issued a statement suggesting attempts at unionization were an attack by special interests on the state’s economic development strategy. 

The state’s business lobbying group soon launched an anti-union campaign claiming the UAW is threatening to “export our jobs to other regions and kill our ability to recruit new and expanding industries.” The Alabama Department of Commerce backed the campaign.

Rhetoric like this is disheartening, Kimbrell said, because it implies that workers in Alabama are not as valuable as those in pro-union states. 

“I absolutely reject that,” he said. “What the business leaders and politicians are saying is that all Alabama has to offer is economic incentives and cheap labor.”

Even if an authorization vote is successful, it may be years before contracts can be negotiated, Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, said in a February phone interview. Because U.S. law on labor unions lacks teeth, employers will often deliberately drag their feet, she said. 

“The law requires both sides to bargain in good faith, but it doesn't really it doesn't really define what ‘good faith’ means and it doesn't really have any penalties for not bargaining in good faith,” Givan said. She cited the example of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, where workers voted in 2022 to form the company’s first union. Amazon seized on internal conflicts to challenge the vote in court, while workers have struggled to unite and bring the company to the negotiating table. 

“They will often try to do just enough where they can claim they are acting in good faith, but in reality, they're not actually attempting to reach an agreement,” Givan said. “They're just attempting to delay and stay on the right side of the law.” That leaves workers with few remaining options, including work stoppages and strikes.

Still, Givan thinks unionization efforts will continue to grow as more and more workers see the benefits of organizing. “I think the Big Three contracts demonstrated the significant gains that workers can achieve by acting collectively,” she said. “I know unionizing is hard, but now they have that real life example, and it can be the push they need to decide to start talking to their coworkers and begin organizing.”

With efforts still underway to unionize Southern auto plants, it remains to be seen how the companies will react. When asked about unionization efforts, a Mercedes spokesperson instead provided a statement highlighting the company’s “open-door policy” and “strong record of success over the past 25-plus years operating as one team in Alabama.”

“MBUSI has a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits,” the statement read. “We believe open and direct communication with our team members is the best path forward to ensure continued success.”

In December, Volkswagen released a statement emphasizing it had “massively invested” in the state of Tennessee, with more than $4.3 billion worth of facilities supporting as many as 125,000 jobs. The company touted “our attractive compensation program — including a recent pay increase of 11% — and our comprehensive benefits and development opportunities.”

For now at least, Volkswagen has signaled that it will respect the rights of its Tennessee workers to organize. “We believe in frequent, transparent, and two-way dialogue with our people to help them stay informed and connected and help shape our world-class assembly environment,” its statement continued. “We also respect the right of our workers to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace.”

Southern autoworkers are watching as their Northern counterparts unionize — and as their employers rake in huge sums of money for investors. Volkswagen recorded profits of €52.2 billion in 2022, while in 2023 Mercedes reported €14.8 billion in profits and Hyundai reported $9.7 billion.

“When companies report profits, they report it in multiples of billions,” Kimbrell said. “When you pay your workers a little more money, that profit still comes in multiples of billions, and it doesn't even register in the report to the shareholders.” As he sees it, employees in Alabama and Tennessee share responsibility for that success and should be rewarded accordingly. “Any argument to the contrary is nonsense.”

Follow @gabetynes
Categories / Business, Education, Employment

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.