Alabama Mercedes Workers Ditched the Old Organizing Playbook

The United Auto Workers have tried and failed to organize Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama plant several times before. With their current union drive, workers have thrown out the old organizing playbook — and their worker-led strategy is showing early signs of success.

The exterior of the Visitors Center at the Mercedes-Benz SUV manufacturing plant in Vance, Alabama. (Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Autoworkers have had several organizing campaigns at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama. They all follow a similar pattern: frustrated workers decide there’s enough energy for change in the plant and start talking about organizing.

We reach out to a union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and meet with a staff organizer. They lead us through the steps they’ve all been taught for decades — a playbook that hasn’t worked for us at Mercedes.

Over the years we got frustrated — not only with the company, but also with the ways that past organizers told us union campaigns had to operate. We would often say to UAW reps, “We don’t know how to win, but we know how to lose, and you do too.”

In our latest campaign, mindful of how social media and the speed of technological change have transformed society, we have to accept that old practices won’t work. So we said to the UAW that the traditional approach was out for us.

We also stressed “worker-led.” We weren’t looking for a crutch to lean on. Surprisingly, we found receptive ears.

And when we saw that this UAW administration was different, we said, “Let’s go.” We had a desire to take it to completion, and a belief that, after the Big Three contracts, the time was now.

The new approach is working. With momentum at our backs, we got 1,500 union authorization cards signed in seven weeks, in a plant of five thousand. (Compare that to 2013, when it took us six months to get 30 percent in a plant of 2,200.)

Here’s how we’re organizing differently this time, and some lessons we’re learning along the way:

Find a Core Group

We built up a core group that was extremely dedicated — the kind of people who were willing to put some things on hold to get the campaign going. To start, we were small, maybe around twenty in a plant of five thousand.

That’s shockingly few to those who know campaigning. In past campaigns, UAW reps insisted we would need one in every ten workers in the plant — so in our case, five hundred workers — to join a Voluntary Organizing Committee before we could release union cards.

Who Are Your Talkers?

But twenty people isn’t the real number, because we had reach beyond the core group. We knew we had hundreds of people inside the plant who were talking daily to their coworkers about the union, but had no interest in committing to being on the Voluntary Organizing Committee.

We had learned that that was a scary term. Workers don’t want a second job. In previous campaigns the committee would hold in-person meetings, sometimes multiple times a week. Organizers insisted that committee members make house calls, which were extremely time-consuming with very little return on investment. People really don’t want you coming to their house. We ended up with a revolving-door committee.

We had great support in the plant in 2022, but the organizer wouldn’t let us get signatures inside the plant. We knew we’d have energy to sign. We also learned in that campaign that people can be brought on board to “spread the word” after they’ve signed. It’s the commitment to multiple meetings, and being out front of the plant before or after shifts to distribute handbills, that turn most people away.

So this time, instead of demanding meetings and a commitment, we’ve made it about building relationships with each other. The most basic and important thing in a campaign is talking. Face-to-face conversations are critical. We’re encouraging just talking and being a part.

Our core committee identified who are the “talkers”: people who are willing to talk about the union to coworkers in their group or in the plant, and who we know from experience are respected by the coworkers around them. (We don’t want anybody helping us who may get fired or alienate other workers.)

Don’t make them commit to anything right away. You just observe them in action and see if their coworkers respond to them.

Floor Walkers

We knew we needed “talkers” all across the whole plant, but especially important was identifying those with the most mobility within their shops, including:

  • Floor walkers, whose jobs take them up and down the lines
  • Floor riders, whose jobs may consist of delivering parts to the line
  • Team leaders, who get to move around because they’re off the line, and who carry greater influence because they’re in leadership

Identifying “talkers” with freedom of movement allowed us to incorporate another important strategy: speed. In the past organizers had always told us the only way to win was to go slow and meet their benchmarks; they emphasized the mentality that “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Use Tech to Move Fast

We released links to online authorization cards through text and QR codes on handbills. The talkers then encouraged those in their group to sign. You have to get the momentum before the anti-union campaign starts.

After multiple past campaigns, we know what to expect from Mercedes management. There’s a standard letter it always puts out that goes down a list of horrors about what could happen if you sign union cards.

The company has meetings with our supervisors on how to discourage workers from participating, but not go too far. An advantage in a German-owned company is that it has to answer to laws and entities in its home country, so the anti-union campaign here has been relatively mild.

There’s been no worker-involved anti-union campaign in our plant since 2013. It’s the outside campaign that worries me — like the governor, who may say anything. But many workers here have already seen management’s standard letter during the last union drive, in 2022. Things have not gotten better since then — and people’s outrage over two-tier pay is the strongest tool we’ve ever had.

Build Your List

Use any means available to create a compilation of who works at your plant. Take pictures of attendance boards. Once workers are identified, you need to compile lists to see who has signed cards.

Divide the list into subgroups, so your talkers know who they need to talk with, and so you can identify your weak areas. Areas without talkers will be weak. Keep these lists updated.

We still had the relationships from the 2022 campaign, and a relatively accurate list of who worked at the plant. We just needed to identify the talkers, one per work group to start, or a “rider” or “walker” to cover that area until we found one.

With our list work, we know who’s talking. It shows in the numbers. We send floor walkers and riders to recruit talkers in our weak areas.

Uncharted Territory

You need a means to get out information quickly to your committee and to workers on the shop floor. Text messaging is most convenient. Find ways to word texts that promote unity, enthusiasm, and a sense of inevitable victory.

Plans have to be shared among the committee. Zoom meetings are most convenient, but don’t exclude those who won’t do Zoom. Just catch them up.

What’s next? We’re in uncharted territory now. The trajectory of cards coming in is still impressive, and we still have areas where we need to recruit talkers. But we know it takes a majority to win. So getting to 50 percent is the next step.