Lessons From the UAW’s Alabama Mercedes Loss

Last week, the United Auto Workers faced a setback in its organizing drive with a union election loss at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama. An autoworker at the factory reflects on why the union lost and what it might do differently next time.

An employee does final inspections at the Mercedes-Benz US International factory in Vance, Alabama, on June 8, 2017. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

I’m still hot as hell three days after losing a union election at the Mercedes factory complex in Alabama. After years of laying a foundation and six months of 100 percent dedication and putting everything on hold, it’s a tough pill to swallow — losing by 597 votes out of 5,000. That’s especially hard when a large majority of workers had committed to vote yes, but some flipped in the closing weeks.

It’ll take time to know everything that went wrong or what exactly led to the loss, but while things are fresh on my mind, I’ll share a few thoughts. I’ve worked at Mercedes for nearly twenty-five years and have been part of multiple efforts over those years to build a union. This was the first time we got to a National Labor Relations Board–supervised election on whether to unionize.

Until you go to an election, you can’t understand what it entails or what your company will do. We never really knew how many workers we had. We never really knew which workers would be included or excluded, including students, temps, or contractors.

Now we have a list with every employee on it that we never had before. And while these workers will now have to claim some ownership of every decision the company makes that impacts them, should the company end up lying — as I expect it will — we’ll be able to quickly capitalize on it and remind these workers that with a union contract we don’t have to trust in the company. We’ll have it writing.

Worker-Led Strategy

The strategy didn’t have a name and it wasn’t organized on paper, but from past experience, we knew generally what we had to do: worker-led. This isn’t in doubt.

If a campaign hopes to be successful, the workers have to lead the way. Organizers can help and the international union can provide resources, but workers have to do the work and be out front.

Our campaign was worker-led. However, in the closing weeks of the campaign as organizers helped us get ready for the vote, I definitely saw workers become less visible. It was harder to get volunteers, and workers weren’t responding to messages or attending meetings as much as they had prior.

Worker-led start to finish. We could’ve been better.

Reputable Leaders

In this union drive, we had the strongest, most reputable group of leaders we’ve ever had. Our leaders were mostly respected and well-liked by coworkers.

They didn’t have attendance or work performance issues, so nobody could blame being a public union supporter for disciplinary actions. I was very proud of the reputation of our leaders.

Working With Team Leaders

Move fast by finding leaders with the freedom to move around the plant and build networks — here we found early success and late failure.

We identified workers who had access to the most workers in the course of their shift, allowing our campaign to move as fast as possible. We got this right in concept, except for a couple things I didn’t think about up front.

Team members on the line have the least mobility and therefore the least reach. Team leaders oversee teams of six to ten and can reach a whole line, potentially. They are very valuable — except they’re also the closest personally to management, and they’re potential candidates for supervisor.

Our management focused on our team leaders in the weeks preceding the most serious union busting. Many of the team leaders flipped from pro-union to anti-union before the closing weeks, and they in turn flipped workers on their lines in the two weeks prior to the vote.

Identify Regular Team Members

Team leaders are needed, and some of our best leaders were team leaders, but in the end, you need to identify enough regular team members that the inevitable effort by management to flip team leaders won’t have an outsize impact. Team members may actually be able to convince their leaders to stay the course.

It’s risk/reward — there’s a benefit to having team leaders on your side, but it’s a risk because of their proximity to management. We were hurt pretty bad in this area.

Our leaders who were mobile equipment drivers and off-the-line walkers were superstars in our campaign. However, with an active union-busting campaign, being off the line in any capacity can increase the likelihood of flipping allegiance. The purpose of an anti-union campaign is to introduce fear. Fear of losing the easier job to outsourcing, maybe, or fear of a more senior worker bumping you out of your position. It becomes easier to just accept the status quo, because it could get worse, when you’re made to be afraid by lies and false rumors.

Lots of our off-the-line workers who weren’t leaders got cold feet in the closing weeks, decided they had it good enough, and flipped to the company.


Making lists and updating them is critical. It’s the only way to know how many workers are in the plant, where your strong areas are, and where to focus your effort.

We were good with list work. Without the company providing a list, we only missed the total employee number by seventy-five workers with a unit of 5,075. The company advertised 6,100.

Public Campaign

To be successful in a union campaign, workers have got to be public about their union support. This is critical, as it gives other workers confidence in their decision to support and eventually vote yes for unionization.

Our union organizing leadership team did a good job of being public. But we found over the course of the campaign that many workers were hedging their bets in case the union vote failed and didn’t want to be totally public. This was especially true of team leaders and people in specialty jobs. These workers were hesitant to sign cards, while saying they were pro-union. These workers flipped their commitment in big numbers in the end.

A worker who won’t sign a union authorization card is very unlikely to stay committed. It’s a major red flag. In the closing days of our campaign and while being an observer for the election, I noticed very few were still wearing the union hats, buttons, and bracelets that they were so proudly wearing just a couple months prior.

Being public is critical. We could’ve been a lot better late.

Win With Kindness

Win coworkers over with kindness. You’ll never win over people by calling them names. Stay civil at all times.

Our workplace has a Facebook group page that’s popular among workers. Tread carefully. Union supporters have to be honest and positive at all times, while the opposition can lie like hell and get as ugly as they want.

If you play the social media game, you better take the high ground. Too many people get on there for entertainment, and falling into a trap is easy.

We were good early but fell into the trap late.

Diversity of Issues

We seized opportunities, but it’s a tricky game. You have to point out the areas in which the company is failing, but you have to remember that they can change course in the middle, especially if you focus on a single issue too heavily.

We had two-tier pay. I honestly thought the company was so arrogant that they wouldn’t get rid of it, but they did. I’m personally guilty of pushing this too specifically, but it was so obvious and easy. We had coined a phrase, “End the Alabama Discount,” and we actually gained support after the company ended two-tier pay and gave us a $2 raise.

We then pivoted to not being able to trust our leadership. Three weeks prior to the election, the company removed our CEO and it led to the “give them a chance” mindset that eventually won the day. Have diversity in issues if possible.

Intense Union Busting

Why did we lose? Well, it’s just not fair. All the weak American labor laws favor the company. It takes six weeks to get to an election after you file, and the company has all the power.

Our company had been running anti-union videos weekly for months with little effect. Once we filed for election, the videos were shown every day. Texts were sent to phones. Anti-union messages were played on our company app and on monitors across the plant, and the company actively encouraged workers to vote no.

Three weeks before our union election, Mercedes removed its CEO and at the same time brought in a group of professional union-busting lawyers who met with workers in groups for two weeks.

Manager Assessment

Supervisors in the plant had rated workers one to five by their perceived union support. Workers who were perceived as soft commits or undecided were called into these meetings and told horror stories about unions by these union busters.

Some of these claimed to be former lawyers or National Labor Relations Board agents or past union members. They claimed neutrality, but almost every word was anti-union.

Somewhere in every meeting they made sure to say, “Give the new CEO a chance.” Then when workers came back to the lines, brainwashed team leaders applied pressure to reinforce the “give the CEO a chance” message.

Announced at 30 Percent

What would I do differently? Our company didn’t launch an active anti-union campaign until after we announced that we had 30 percent union cards signed. While that announcement generated excitement, it also triggered the company to act probably earlier than they would’ve otherwise.

Also, a chorus of “let’s vote” became louder and louder, because legally 30 percent is the minimum you need to file for election. It was very distracting and took away from where the focus needed to be: building a pro-union majority.

You can vote with 30 percent, but you damn sure can’t win. I liked the buzz that the 30 percent announcement created, but maybe we should’ve waited a bit longer to announce or not even announce at all. It’s debatable.

At 50 percent support, we made another announcement. At this point an influential coworker took to social media to say we were no longer in signing mode but in vote mode.

He referenced a prior agreement with the international from ten years prior that was definitely no longer in effect, but the damage was done. Big mistake. It became difficult to sign up workers after this.

Everyone on the team needs to be a team player. Going rogue is in contradiction to what being a union is about.

Flyers With QR Codes

Looking back, I wish we handled releasing fliers with QR codes differently. Two months before the election, workers could use the fliers to sign up to be public with their union support. I think that is a very effective way to show which workers aren’t scared to be public.

But many workers whose names were put on that list by their own action later tried to say it was done without their permission. While that was likely dishonest, it can have an impact on workers who may be on the fence.

In retrospect, I think we should’ve required each worker to confirm verbally or in writing their wish to go public — and either released that list earlier or waited until later to collect those signatures, so there wasn’t such a long gap in between.

Ultimately, after one of the worst anti-union campaigns in the auto industry in decades, unsure workers felt sympathetic to the company message, took the “give the CEO a chance” bait, and chose the status quo over worker-led change, unfortunately. They said, “Give him a year.”

CEOs come and go and promises mean nothing. Only with a union and a legally binding contract can workers guarantee the company will respect its workers and honor agreements.

So whether it’s in a year or a little longer, you already know our organizing committee will be back standing up for workers and reminding them there’s another way. A better way. The union way.