Skip to Content Facebook Feature Image

After decisive loss at Alabama Mercedes plants, powerful auto union vows to return and win

News

After decisive loss at Alabama Mercedes plants, powerful auto union vows to return and win
News

News

After decisive loss at Alabama Mercedes plants, powerful auto union vows to return and win

2024-05-18 11:21 Last Updated At:11:30

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A decisive vote against the United Auto Workers union at two Mercedes factories in Alabama on Friday sidetracked the UAW's grand plan to sign up workers at nonunion plants mainly in the South.

But newly elected President Shawn Fain said the union will return to Mercedes and will press on with efforts to organize about 150,000 workers at more than a dozen auto factories across the nation.

More Images
UAW President Shawn Fain, center, speaks with Mercedes workers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024 after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A decisive vote against the United Auto Workers union at two Mercedes factories in Alabama on Friday sidetracked the UAW's grand plan to sign up workers at nonunion plants mainly in the South.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

David Johnston, right, a worker at Mercedes, thanks UAW President Shawn Fain following a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

David Johnston, right, a worker at Mercedes, thanks UAW President Shawn Fain following a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

FILE - The Mercedes emblem is displayed outside the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. plant, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - The Mercedes emblem is displayed outside the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. plant, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - United Auto Workers union supporters attend a rally, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Birmingham, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - United Auto Workers union supporters attend a rally, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Birmingham, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

Employees at Mercedes battery and assembly plants near Tuscaloosa voted 56% against the union in an election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

The vote count handed the union a serious setback a month after the UAW scored a breakthrough victory at Volkswagen’s 4,300-worker assembly factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The NLRB's final tally showed a vote of 2,642 against the union, with 2,045 in favor. Nearly 93% of workers eligible to vote cast ballots.

Marick Masters, a professor emeritus at Wayne State University's business school who has long studied the union, said the UAW will have to analyze what went wrong and apply those lessons as it moves to other nonunion factories largely in the South.

“They’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” said Masters, who added that the union will need to ask itself if it needs to get more workers to sign cards seeking a union election before calling for a vote. The union may also want to respond faster to management opposition, he said.

"Do they need to assess more realistically the actual level of grievances and how passionately workers are to stay committed to a union organizing effort in the face of opposition?” Masters asked.

Fain assured workers that the union will return, telling them the loss was a bump in the road, not failure. He said he told company officials the fight was not over.

“We’ve been here before, and we’re going to continue on and we’re going to win,” he said. “And I think we’ll have a different result down the road, and I look forward to that.”

The NLRB said both sides have five business days to file objections to the election, and the union must wait a year before seeking another vote at Mercedes.

Whether the union challenges the election will be up to its lawyers, said Fain, who accused the company of “egregious illegal behavior.”

The union already has filed unfair labor practice complaints against the company alleging that management and anti-union consultants tried to intimidate workers. Mercedes has denied the allegations.

“Obviously we’re following through on complaints, both here and in Germany” where Mercedes is headquartered, Fain said.

A big difference between the loss at Mercedes and the overwhelming win at Volkswagen, Fain said, was that Mercedes actively fought the union. “Obviously, Volkswagen was more neutral, and that wasn’t the case here," he said of Mercedes, which he accused of holding captive meetings of workers to campaign against the UAW.

In a statement Friday, Mercedes said it looks forward to “continuing to work directly with our team members so they can build superior vehicles for the world.”

The company said its focus is on providing a safe and supportive work environment.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who has campaigned against the union, wrote in a post on X that auto manufacturing is one of the state’s crown jewel industries, and the state is committed to keeping it that way.

“Alabama is not Michigan, and we are not the Sweet Home to the UAW,” she wrote. “We urge the UAW to respect the results of this secret ballot election.”

Worker Melissa Howell, who opposed joining the union, said she and other employees realized that the UAW was making lofty promises that it couldn't put in writing, including pay of $40 per hour, pensions and better benefits.

“They kept repeating over and over, ‘You’re not going to lose anything. We're going to start with what you have right now,'” Howell said. “That's when we really started letting people know, 'Hey, hold up. It's all negotiable.'"

But Kirk Garner, 60, who works in quality control at the Mercedes assembly plant and supported joining the union, said workers were shown an anti-union video every day ahead of the vote, while union opponents targeted employees who they thought could be persuaded to vote no.

“I’m disappointed in the people that flipped and believed the persuaders,” Garner said.

The UAW won at Volkswagen largely because of the prospect of substantially higher wages and other benefits. Contracts reached with the Detroit Three automakers, General Motors, Stellantis and Ford, brought 33% raises between now and 2028 when the deals expire, giving the union a large recruiting tool.

Before VW, the United Auto Workers had little success at nonunion auto plants in the South, where workers have been much less drawn to organized labor than in the traditional union strongholds of Michigan and other industrial Midwestern states.

A victory at the Mercedes plants would have represented a huge plum for the union, which has long struggled to overcome the enticements that Southern states have bestowed on foreign automakers, including tax breaks, lower labor costs and a nonunion workforce.

It turns out that the union had a tougher time in Alabama than in Tennessee, where the UAW narrowly lost two previous votes and was familiar with workers at the factory.

A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Mercedes employee Kirk Garner as Rick Garner.

Krisher reported from Detroit. AP Business Writer Wyatte Grantham-Philips in New York contributed to this report.

UAW President Shawn Fain, center, speaks with Mercedes workers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024 after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

UAW President Shawn Fain, center, speaks with Mercedes workers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024 after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday, May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the UAW. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

David Johnston, right, a worker at Mercedes, thanks UAW President Shawn Fain following a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

David Johnston, right, a worker at Mercedes, thanks UAW President Shawn Fain following a press conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 17, 2024, after workers at two Alabama Mercedes-Benz factories voted overwhelmingly against joining the United Auto Workers union. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

FILE - The Mercedes emblem is displayed outside the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. plant, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - The Mercedes emblem is displayed outside the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. plant, Sunday, May 5, 2024, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - United Auto Workers union supporters attend a rally, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Birmingham, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

FILE - United Auto Workers union supporters attend a rally, Saturday, May 4, 2024, in Birmingham, Ala. The United Auto Workers union faces the latest test of its ambitious plan to unionize auto plants in the historically nonunion South when a vote ends Friday, May 17, at two Mercedes-Benz factories near Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday to block Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom, a measure they contend is unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs in the suit include parents of Louisiana public school children with various religious backgrounds, who are represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the New York City law firm Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett.

“This display sends a message to my children and other students that people of some religious dominations are superior to others,” said the Rev. Jeff Simms, a Presbyterian pastor who is a plaintiff in the suit and father of three children in Louisiana public schools. “This is religious favoritism.”

Under the legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry last week, all public K-12 classrooms and state-funded universities will be required to display a poster-sized version of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” next year.

Opponents argue that the law is a violation of separation of church and state and that the display will isolate students, especially those who are not Christian. Proponents say the measure is not solely religious, but that it has historical significance. In the language of the law, the Ten Commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

Plaintiff Joshua Herlands has two young children in New Orleans public schools who, like their father, are Jewish. There are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, and Herlands said the specific version mandated for classroom walls does not align with the version from his faith. He worries the display will send a troubling message to his kids and others that “they may be lesser in the eyes of the government.”

“Politicians have absolutely no business forcing their religious beliefs on my kids or any kids, or attempting to indoctrinate them with what they think is the right version of a particular piece of religious text,” Herlands said.

The lawsuit filed Monday seeks a court declaration that the new law, referred to in the lawsuit as HB 71, violates First Amendment clauses forbidding government establishment of religion and guaranteeing religious liberty. It also seeks an order prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

“The state’s main interest in passing H.B. 71 was to impose religious beliefs on public-school children, regardless of the harm to students and families,” the lawsuit says. "The law’s primary sponsor and author, Representative Dodie Horton, proclaimed during debate over the bill that it 'seeks to have a display of God’s law in the classroom for children to see what He says is right and what He says is wrong.'"

Defendants include state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, members of the state education board and some local school boards.

Landry and Louisiana Attorney General Elizabeth Murrill support the new law, and Murrill has said she is looking forward to defending it. She issued a statement saying she couldn’t comment directly on the lawsuit because she had not yet seen it.

“It seems the ACLU only selectively cares about the First Amendment — it doesn’t care when the Biden administration censors speech or arrests pro-life protesters, but apparently it will fight to prevent posters that discuss our own legal history,” Murrill said in the emailed statement.

The Ten Commandments have long been at the center of lawsuits across the nation.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose.

In a more recent ruling, the Supreme Court held in 2005 that such displays in a pair of Kentucky courthouses violated the Constitution. At the same time, the court upheld a Ten Commandments marker on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol in Austin. Those were 5-4 decisions, but the court’s makeup has changed, with a 6-3 conservative majority now.

Although some people think this case may rise to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court and test the conservative members, lawyers for the plaintiffs say that they think this is a clear-cut case

“We think this is already covered by clear Supreme Court precedent,” said Patrick Elliott, the legal director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We think under current law that we will prevail and it would not be necessary for the Supreme Court to review it.”

Other states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah, have attempted to pass requirements that the schools display the Ten Commandments. However, with threats of legal battles, none has the mandate in place except for Louisiana.

The posters in Louisiana, which will be paired with a four-paragraph “context statement” describing how the Ten Commandments “were a prominent part of public education for almost three centuries,” must be in place in classrooms by the start of 2025.

The controversial law comes during a new era of conservative leadership in Louisiana under Landry, who replaced two-term Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in January. The GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature, and Republicans hold every statewide elected position, paving the way for lawmakers to push through a conservative agenda.

The case was allotted to U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.

McGill reported from New Orleans.

This story has been corrected to show that the plaintiffs are represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FILE - Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signs bills related to his education plan, Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)

FILE - Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signs bills related to his education plan, Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)

FILE - A copy of the Ten Commandments is posted along with other historical documents in a hallway of the Georgia Capitol, Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Atlanta. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

FILE - A copy of the Ten Commandments is posted along with other historical documents in a hallway of the Georgia Capitol, Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Atlanta. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Recommended Articles