Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Why Mercedes-Benz workers are considering a union

  Here are two reminders of how our state leaders feel about unions.

  “These are out-of-state special interest groups, and their special interests do not include Alabama or the men and women earning a career in Alabama’s automotive industry,” Gov. Kay Ivey wrote after Mercedes-Benz workers announced an organization drive last month.

  Next, Helena Duncan, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, on the United Auto Workers: “Giving the UAW a toehold within the state is the same as dumping a large and toxic dose of castor oil into a delightfully delicious economic development recipe.”

  Of course, this casserole is served to out-of-state corporations and made from tax dollars — over $1.6 billion over 25 years, according to a recent report — that would otherwise support state and local services. (Alabama’s region-leading unionization rate hasn’t spoiled any company’s appetite for the money.)

  So what about the Alabamians looking to form a union?

  I read Ivey’s quote to Jeremy Kimbrell, one of the workers involved in the Mercedes organization drive, during a phone call last week. He said Ivey “can’t relate to us.”

  “She wants to protect Mercedes and other employers in the state, and she doesn’t have any concerns for the worker,” he said.

  Kimbrell has worked at Mercedes-Benz outside Vance for 24 years and has been full-time for 23. When he started, he said, raises were regular and consistent. But with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, Kimbrell said they became far more erratic, even after the economy recovered.

  Premiums and co-pays on insurance have also gone up, he said. There are 10-hour shifts for many workers and irregular scheduling. Then there’s the use of temporary workers. New employees, he said, go in and out of the factory like a “revolving door.”

  “I hadn’t been there very long when we started losing benefits,” he said. “As the years went by, you go from wanting a union to make things a little better to needing a union to make things happen.”

  The state’s auto industry still pays well relative to the rest of the state. An Alabama Arise report published in November found auto workers around the state make an average of $64,682 a year, slightly higher than the state household median income of $59,674.

  But the report also found that the real wages of autoworkers in Alabama declined by 11% between 2002 and 2019, and that Black, Hispanic, and women workers were falling behind in wages.

  The report also found Alabama auto workers continue to trail their national colleagues in pay and compensation. Kimbrell calls that the “Alabama discount.” That, of course, was a big reason manufacturers arrived in Alabama in the 1990s and early 2000s: no unions meant cheaper labor.

  “It’s not like pay-wise, Mercedes isn’t decent-paying,” Kimbrell said. “It is. But it’s not giving you complete value.”

  In response to questions, a spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz U.S. International wrote that the company “has a proven record of competitively compensating team members and providing many additional benefits.”

  Kimbrell has been a fan of unions since his early days in Marion County, where “the best jobs we had were the union jobs.” He’s carved out a sometimes lonely niche as a union advocate at Mercedes. (A 2006 Chicago Tribune story identified him as a “pro-union activist.”)

  Kimbrell said earlier union efforts sputtered in part because they weren’t “worker-led.” But it was difficult to persuade people that a union was needed. They got good pay and the plant was a lot more comfortable than what many had experienced before. Kimbrell knew this well. He had been a roofer. Working at Mercedes meant not climbing to the top of a building in all kinds of weather.

  “Compared to the jobs in the area, it was a better job, better atmosphere, cleaner, climate-controlled, and they at least made you feel like you were appreciated,” he said.

  But with the stalled pay and benefits, he said, the ground seems more fertile for a union. UAW’s successful strike against the Big Three Detroit automakers last fall gave Kimbrell new confidence in the union’s leadership.

  “When the new administration came in with the UAW, we wanted to see if they would hold a harder line,” he said. “When we saw the contract we said ‘Man, (the union) got what they wanted to get.’”

  And many of Kimbrell’s colleagues agree. The UAW said last week that the union is nearing “a majority of workers” who had signed union cards at Mercedes and at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Last month, UAW announced it would request a union election if 70% sign. Workers at Hyundai’s assembly plant in Montgomery unveiled their organization drive last week, focused on pay and health issues.

  Kimbrell said union organizers got “a six-week head start” but that Mercedes managers were putting out videos telling people to be careful about signing union cards, with a letter from the CEO following up. (The Mercedes spokeswoman said the company “wants to ensure its team members make an informed decision.”)

  Kimbrell said he thought the letter might have spurred more signatures in the plant.

  “Everybody will tell you car companies moved to Alabama to pay us less wages,” he said. “We’ve got four car companies and an engine plant. I think that’s enough to say Alabama workers are as good as any around the country. We shouldn’t give a discount. We’re as valuable.”

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector

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