After victory at VW in Chattanooga, the union road leads to Alabama

A victory there could mean intense organizing in South Carolina and Georgia

After the United Auto Workers’ triumph at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the road swings south to Alabama, where workers at another massive plant will decide whether they, too, want to join the union.

And if Mercedes-Benz workers also say yes, the next big tests would likely come in South Carolina and Georgia.

“If the Alabama vote is successful as well it could begin a snowball or domino effect in some of the Southern states,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies for Cornell University’s school of industrial relations. “The momentum of the UAW is difficult to deny. There is a reasonable chance the UAW can win on the first election.”

Officials at Mercedes-Benz, whose North American headquarters is in metro Atlanta, said in a statement that they respect their employees’ choice whether to unionize of not. “We look forward to participating in the election process to ensure every Team Member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice.”

But after a majority of workers signed cards expressing a desire to join the UAW, federal officials scheduled a vote for mid-May.

No other elections will likely be announced before then, said Tim Smith, director of the UAW’s Region 8, which includes much of the South. “Right now, we are all in on Alabama.”

After last year’s triumphant strikes against three U.S. automakers ended in generous raises for workers, the UAW in late February committed $40 million to an organizing drive aimed at non-union workers at auto and battery plants, especially in the South.

“We are looking to workers to stand up,” Smith said. “They are going to tell us what they want.”

It is a region where the union’s momentum will collide with obstacles that are historical, political, cultural and legislative. After two failed attempts at Volkswagen, the overwhelming victory was a dramatic change of direction.

“There’s been a failure to organize in the South, and that specter is hanging over the union,” said labor historian Erik Loomis of the University of Rhode Island. “But the South is changing. It’s a different South than it was 10 years ago. So, this could be a transformative moment for the union movement.”

He compared it to the 1930′s sit-down strike at the Flint, Mich., General Motors plant where, after many failed — and often bloody — attempts to organize the auto industry, there was a union victory that rippled through the rest of the sector and spread to related businesses, like rubber and steel.

Flint convinced workers not to fear the consequences of unionizing, Loomis said.

The threats now seem mostly to be economic. Critics of unions say they raise costs, make production less efficient and fuel the outsourcing of recent decades in which some kinds of manufacturing — like textiles — went overseas. And the share of union membership — even in the auto industry — has fallen precipitously in recent decades.

Many foreign manufacturers, who have wanted to have production in North America to serve the American market, have chosen the South as a location because of the region’s historic resistance to unions. The Georgia Legislature, for example, recently passed a bill that would cut state economic incentives to any companies that voluntarily allow unionization.

With a nod to those choices, a joint statement from six Southern governors, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Tennessee’s Bill Lee and Alabama’s Kay Ivey, had warned VW workers that joining the UAW could cost them their jobs and threaten the region’s economic progress.

That kind of message helped kill two previous unionization campaigns in Chattanooga. But this time, the union won with 73% of the vote.

Still, the VW plant might not be the template that other factories can copy. Not only was this the third union drive, the plant itself is more urban than the Mercedes plant, which is outside Tuscaloosa, and those in Georgia, like the Kia plant in West Point, the planned Hyundai and Rivian auto plants and the SK Battery factory.

Rivian is based in California. The other big Georgia plants are subsidiaries of South Korean companies.

But VW ownership is in Germany, where manufacturing is highly unionized and a union member sits on the company’s board of directors. While the company might not have wanted a union in Chattanooga, it was officially neutral, partly to avoid provoking its own workers, Loomis said.

It is no coincidence that the next campaign is at Mercedes-Benz, which is also based in Germany, Loomis said. “There’s a reason that the UAW is targeting the German plants first.”

That’s why if there’s a union victory in Alabama, the following campaign might be in South Carolina, where BMW has an 11,000-worker plant near Spartanburg, he said.

Yet unlike VW, Mercedes-Benz has made a concerted effort to persuade the roughly 5,000 wage workers at the plant to vote against a union, according to Jeremy Kimbrell, a worker for 24 years at the plant.

“Every day there’s a new video or piece of literature or both telling us how the plant may close or we’ll lose money and benefits,” he said. “To me, it’s laughable. The profit margin they make on what we build is through the stinking roof.”

Political pressure will not have an impact on the vote, Kimbrell said.

“We feel like the executives, the bosses and the millionaires are in cahoots with the politicians and they are against us,” he said. “But we are going to win. The only question is, how big the margin will be.”