Why Did the UAW Lose in Alabama?

Many explanations of the United Auto Workers’ recent loss at Mercedes in Alabama don’t hold up under scrutiny. To understand the challenges the UAW ran into, we need a historical perspective on attempts to organize in the US South.

United Auto Workers members strike a General Motors assembly plant on September 29, 2023, in Lansing, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

There is quite a bit of exciting labor activity going on throughout the United States. According to several metrics, the present period seems so far to be one of labor ascendancy.

Union elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have been on the rise over the past few years, surging up from their pandemic lows by 53 percent between 2021 and 2022, and ticking up again modestly by another 3 percent between 2022 and 2023. Work stoppages have also been on the rise: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 459,000 workers struck in 2023, reaching a level not seen since the year 2000. The more inclusive Labor Action Tracker  placed the figure even higher, at 539,000 workers. The total number of union members also rose slightly in 2023, growing to 14.4 million workers, even as the union density rate remained largely unchanged (just 10 percent of the wage and salary labor force).

More significantly, the recent period has been a moment of sharp growth in organizing. This includes the highly visible Starbucks Workers United campaign (now with well over four hundred stores with certified unions), as well as organizing at other brand-name retail outlets, including Apple, Trader Joe’s, and REI. Across US college campuses, new graduate and undergraduate student unionization has taken off substantially; the Student Researchers United–UAW collective bargaining unit at the University of California was so large that its certification in 2021 increased national union density by 0.1 percent. There is also the unionization of the large Amazon warehouse JFK8 in Staten Island, New York, where workers continue their fight to negotiate a first contract.

These recent victories were preceded by several earlier spikes that suggested to many a similar period of labor ascendancy, though their lasting influence was less than expected. These include the large-scale protests in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011, in response to the proposal of Act 10, and the many teachers strikes, led by Chicago, but also involving militant displays by so-called red state teachers, especially in West Virginia and Oklahoma in 2018.

For many observers of the American labor movement, some of the most exciting recent developments have occurred in the US South. Recently, there have been successful contract struggles in the unionized Daimler truck plants (mostly in North Carolina), as well as a large-scale organizing campaign of over twenty thousand teachers in Fairfax County, Virginia — not to mention the dramatic victory in the NLRB election at Volkswagen (VW) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) won with 73 percent. In the immediate aftermath of the election at VW, many saw the UAW’s victory as the labor movement’s long-sought-after beachhead in the South, with the potential of realizing the promises of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’s failed 1946–1953 Operation Dixie campaign.

Yet shortly thereafter, the UAW lost a second election at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, where the union first predicted it would win decisively given that it already had union cards signed by over 70 percent of the workers. In the wake of the Vance election, we want to provide a sober analysis of what happened in the context of what is taking place across the United States, looking both at what is new and exciting, but most importantly putting what has happened so far into broad historical perspective. In so doing, we seek to avoid the most exaggerated claims — and, in some cases, the deep misunderstandings and illusions of certain analysts — about labor’s recent upsurge.

The US Auto Industry Today

The motor-vehicle industry remains a central industry in the US economy, directly employing more than one million workers and contributing approximately $156 billion to US GDP. It also, unlike most other industries, has always had a huge multiplier effect, using parts, components, and raw materials from a wide range of other industries, making a good part of the US economy dependent on it, with integral connections to supply chains around the world. Unlike most other manufacturing industries, its support includes over two million in sales and dealership personnel and over one million repair workers.

While smaller and second in size to China’s, the US’s consumption of automobiles is still arguably its most important consumer market. Since the 1980s, foreign firms (referred to as transplants) have established their US production facilities largely, although not exclusively, in the South, along with hundreds of foreign-owned parts facilities. These facilities, by number of workers employed, vehicles produced, and other metrics, today make up more than half of US motor-vehicle production. With a few exceptions, these Southern transplants have proved difficult for unions to organize, for a multitude of reasons.

Unlike auto, many of the leading industries of the 1930s and 1940s are now marginal in the United States, including coal, textiles, and basic steel. Yet while recent contract negotiations on the West Coast in longshore, in railroad, and in the UPS all went to the brink of a strike before settlement, the situation in Southern auto appears decidedly different.

It should also be noted that longshore, rail, and logistics are highly balkanized in ways that auto is not. West Coast longshore workers, organized by the International Longshore Workers Union, are highly separate from the East and Gulf Coast longshore workers and their union, the latter being far less militant and historically not left-wing. As a consequence, despite the importance of the West Coast’s trade relations with Asia, when a West Coast longshore strike appeared imminent, companies began switching some of their freight to the East Coast.

Railroad workers, overwhelmingly unionized, are in fourteen different, often uncooperative unions; they were easily stifled in the last round of contract negotiations by the Biden administration, which imposed a settlement on them that had been rejected by a majority of the railroad rank and file. Though once heavily unionized, truckers are now largely unorganized, and even in the package-goods sector it is only UPS, the largest company in control of roughly one-third of the market, that has a union.

In auto, by contrast, the UAW has free rein and complete jurisdiction, with only some very minor exceptions. So the successful unionization of Southern auto would entail a single nationwide union of autoworkers. This would be highly consequential internationally, both because for many decades the “world car” platform has depended upon components around the globe, and because several of the US transplants produce largely for international markets.

Explaining the UAW Defeat

Several of the most popular explanations for the loss at Mercedes and difficulties in the South generally, when looked at closely, carry little weight.

One such explanation, found both on the Left and in the more mainstream media, is the strength of Southern political opposition. In 2014, when the UAW lost a previous union certification attempt at VW in Chattanooga, numerous observers cited the coercive rhetoric of Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker as an important negative factor.

However, viewed historically, this sort of political opposition  has rarely been decisive in the outcome of union elections. During a union recognition campaign in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1948, for example, the white supremacist Dixiecrat senator Theodore G. Bilbo and congressman John E. Rankin came to town to oppose the union, calling its organizers communists and race mixers. But when the vote came, white workers as well as African Americans voted overwhelmingly for the union. In Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948, despite political opposition, the UAW won recognition at the International Harvester plant by 861 to 4.

For the most part, politicians’ rhetoric has had little direct impact on workers’ decisions, unless of course it is reinforced with repression — such as when the National Guard is called out to escort scabs and shoot workers, as happened often in the 1920s and ’30s but is less common today.

Other observers have cited, as evidence of effective political hostility, the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives Southern states have provided auto companies on the condition they not voluntarily recognize unions without a secret ballot election. Yet once given, these abatements are frequently contractually irrevocable and in effect for decades, suggesting that the tax incentives probably have very little to do with employer hostility to unions. So in our opinion, analysts who cite this opposition are off base.

Another popular explanation is the alleged backwardness and anti-unionism of Southern workers. Yet in our view, workers in the South have rarely been hostile to unions. Southern workers have faced many obstacles, but historically, when given a chance, they are as prone to organize and strike as other workers.

This has certainly been the case in Alabama. Coal miners, steelworkers, woodworkers, packinghouse workers, longshore, auto, even public sector employees, and at times textile workers, have organized in Alabama. This was especially true during the 1930s and ’40s, and at times Alabama workers were among the most militant nationally. For example, in 1945, the unionization rate in Alabama was 25 percent, higher than the rate in any state in the United States today.

After World War II, in one of the few successes of the CIO’s  Operation Dixie, forty thousand workers were fully organized in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the so-called Atomic City, site of the enormous federally run complex (under the aegis of private companies) producing materials for atomic weapons. To take another example, the United Rubber Workers — a relatively mainstream, nonleft union — was completely successful at organizing foreign- and domestically owned tire factories in the US South through the mid-1970s.

There are many other instances that counter the narrative that Southern workers are union averse. Moreover, even today, Alabama is far more unionized than most other Southern states (almost 8 percent, compared to 2–3 percent in the Carolinas).

Finally, others have made the argument that current labor laws make it more difficult to organize. While regressive laws certainly have some impact, historically they are rarely decisive. Workers have organized successfully in much more difficult legal environments in the past, and it is our opinion that legal improvements tend to follow successful organizing, rather than foster it.

Decline and Reform in the United Auto Workers

We might instead start to trace the UAW’s problems in the South to its degeneration as a once-militant, democratic union, to a crass, company-oriented, rather sycophantic, authoritarian operation. This change began early, and Walter Reuther and his cohort played a critical role: from his gutting of the dense steward system at General Motors in 1940 to the transformation of the union under his leadership (beginning with his 1946 presidency). That evolution was consolidated in the 1950  five-year contract, the “Treaty of Detroit,” which some Reuther hagiologists compare positively to the UAW’s organizing victories in the wake of the Flint sit-down strike.

This beggarly stance became more extreme over time, beginning with the 1979 concessions to Chrysler and eventually leading to a position that the main role of the union was to cooperate with and enhance the profitability of the company, regardless of the impact on workers. This tired-and-true stance, seen historically from Samuel Gompers in the early American Federation of Labor (AFL) to Sidney Hillman in the 1930s CIO and many unions today, has never worked, and is a recipe for failure. UAW leaders accepted concessions, two-tier wage systems, the abandonment of cost-of-living adjustments, and degradation of pensions and health care. At VW and elsewhere, the union’s attempts to make nice with the companies and help keep them profitable  suggested to workers that the union had nothing to offer.

Moreover, in recent years the former UAW leadership suffered from successive scandals that severely damaged the legitimacy of the then ruling Administrative Caucus. Decades of close collaboration between the Big Three auto manufacturers —  General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (owner of Chrysler) —  and the UAW laid the groundwork for an internal culture of corruption built on the back of successive contracts characterized by givebacks and concessions.

Initial federal probes in 2017 led to the conviction of several top union officials on charges of embezzlement and accepting kickbacks. Former presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, who reportedly stole $1.5 million in members’ dues, were eventually sentenced to prison.

What has changed? As the recent successful UAW campaign at VW, and the earlier contract gains first at the Big Three, and then at Daimler truck suggest, the “new” UAW presented Southern transplant workers with a more attractive picture. The old, corrupt leadership was ousted in a campaign that elected Shawn Fain as president, and a majority of the new executive board of the union, supported by the opposition group Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), have created a different image.

The karma from these two contract struggles (25 percent  wage gains at the Big Three and a substantially improved contract at Daimler) added further positive cachet. The recent UAW victory in Chattanooga’s large Volkswagen plant was  preceded by the rolling “stand-up” strikes at the Big Three, which were perceived as giving immense gains to workers and presented the UAW as a much more viable alternative for Southern workers. While the jury must still remain out on the new leadership group, Daimler activists have suggested to us that the degree of support in their recent struggles with the company has been night and day from the old leadership.

Why Did the Union Lose?

What accounts for the difficulties and ultimate loss at Mercedes in Alabama, in contrast to the victory at VW in Chattanooga? First, we are not (yet?) in a period of upsurge, where union victories are nigh-universal and easily overwhelm capitalist resistance. This is evident when we contrast our present moment with earlier periods of massive union upsurge: for example, in 1918 and 1919, union membership more than doubled from its 1914 level as massive strikes took place in meatpacking, steel, coal, and Southern textiles, among other industries. In 1933, union membership jumped 20 percent  from roughly 2.9 to 3.5 million members in the wake of the rapid unionization of the country’s 600,000 coal miners.

The following year began a long period of militancy and union growth that included several important, often radical-led strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis, and the eventual seizure of GM plants by sit-downers in Flint, Michigan, in 1936–37. All these latter strikes electrified the entire US working class and parts of the international working class as well. From 1933 to 1945, during such a period of worker upsurge, union membership increased dramatically from just under three million to almost fifteen million. By contrast, the number of union members grew by a relatively modest 139,000 over the past year.

Second, the largest plants of the most powerful companies have always been exceedingly difficult to organize. Large steel mills were organized later than smaller coal mines. In auto, labor’s initial victories came at White Motors in Cleveland and Briggs in Detroit long before the larger GM plants in Flint. Mercedes likewise was not low-hanging fruit.

Third, unlike noisy right-wing Republican political rhetoric, employer resistance makes a very big difference.

The anti-union playbook, perfected over the last few decades by employers, was deployed with great effectiveness at Mercedes. Unlike VW, Mercedes initially had among the highest wages of any transplant, although recent data suggest that Alabama Mercedes workers have lost real wages over the past decade or so. Still, the company immediately raised pay after the Big Three strike, and mostly got rid of the two-tier employee system.

One common anti-union strategy, which Mercedes carried out, is to blame problems on their CEO, fire them, and replace them with a seeming more conciliatory figure that asks workers to give them a chance to address workers’ grievances. The company also used many other tactics, from video monitors throughout the plant to one-on-ones with employees who they thought could be convinced, whom they gave breaks from arduous work and had special captive-audience meetings with.

These tactics apparently had an important impact. The UAW has filed unfair labor charges against Mercedes with the NLRB and demanded a new election.

Overcoming employer resistance requires the most important type of outside support — what has elsewhere been called “associational power” — which tends to come from the mobilization of fellow unionized workers in the nearby vicinity. An example of the importance of associational power is illuminated by prior efforts at organizing the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, Kentucky. In Georgetown, the hardly radical construction trades forced Toyota, who originally hired a nonunion Japanese firm to build the plant, to use only unionized labor. Originally, Toyota had planned to contract nonunion trades people to both construct the facility and work skilled jobs in the plant. Between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s, building-trades unions mobilized workers in Tennessee and in surrounding states, organizing nearby communities around threats of environmental degradation, and holding massive demonstrations throughout the state and in Washington, DC.

This show of associational power finally forced Toyota to abandon its plans to go nonunion. In Vance, a more substantial and longer-running campaign of support might have helped.

Finally, union members have suggested that the union itself made some important errors. Rather than slowly and covertly building support for the union, the organizers went public at 30 percent of union cards signed. Organizers also relied on digital contact through QR codes as a predominant method for obtaining the crucial 70 percent of authorization cards rather than confirming workers’ support through face-to-face meetings. It seems that the UAW believed that calling a quick election in the wake of their other successes, building on the momentum generated from the Big Three strikes, would take the company by storm, which clearly did not happen.

The Way Forward

Short of a major upsurge, the building of strong, widespread inside support alongside networks of associational power, especially when organizing large workplaces like Mercedes and the immense Amazon fulfillment centers, will take time and more careful work. Further, unions should consider sending in organizers to work in these plants. Although there is much talk today about “salting,” this is nothing new. The Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) early in the twentieth century often sent their activists into workplaces, lumber camps, fields, mines, and other venues to “fan the flames of discontent.”

Even the AFL trades have historically done this. During World War II, both the AFL and the CIO agreed not to organize the aforementioned Oak Ridge facility until the war was over. Yet  the AFL sent over one thousand activists into the workplaces at Oak Ridge during the war, many of whom switched to production jobs in the aftermath.

None of this is to diminish what has happened so far. There are many examples of both slow, careful organizing work as well as major upsurges. Nevertheless, substantial union growth happens most rapidly during periods of dramatic organizing takeoff, and that is not only true of the 1930s.

For example, before 1960, public school teachers were largely unorganized. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) maintained two chapters, in New York City and Chicago, both limping along with memberships perhaps in the hundreds. By contrast, the National Education Association, a professional organization that included principals, opposed strikes, and eschewed collective bargaining, was dominant throughout the United States at the time. The Condon-Wadlin Act in New York State (the precursor to the current Taylor Law) was the most draconian, repressive labor legislation in the country.

Yet by November 1960, when more than ten thousand New York City teachers struck for collective bargaining, city politicians were afraid to put the law into practice. The teachers won in early 1961, and within months, virtually every large city in the country had a vibrant AFT chapter. Within several years, teachers were overwhelmingly organized across the country, even in so-called red states like Oklahoma and Utah, before any state-level enabling legislation was passed.

We are not certainly not in the midst of this sort of upsurge yet, but when it comes, we will know it.