By Mike Elk

May 20, 2024  Payday Report

 

Greetings from the ‘Burgh, where I am dealing with some health issues. We will have more stories and reactions to the historic UAW loss coming out early next week, but I’d like to fill in all of our readers with what we have learned so far.

My sense from talking to union leaders over the phone is that the digital-heavy and organizing committee-light approach made the UAW unable to withstand Mercedes’ “give us one more chance” plea after they fired their plant manager.

A Digital-Quick & Traditional Organizing Committee Light Approach

Rather than using traditional organizing committee structures, the UAW relied heavily on digital meetings, a light staff approach from the international union, and getting workers to sign union cards via QR codes. Given the positive media coverage of the UAW in the “Stand Up Strike,” many UAW leaders were confident they could win using this approach.

After filing with 70%, the UAW believed they would maintain their margin and win at similar margins to the 73% victory of UAW workers in Chattanooga. However, the UAW lost 44%-56% in Alabama amid charges that the company used backroom manipulation tactics against workers. These tactics may be illegal in Germany and could cause Mercedes to get into legal trouble. 

However, the union bled support in the face of manipulation and a disinformation campaign. Many workers bought into Mercedes’ pleas to give them another chance and voted against the UAW.

Kirk Garner said the union was caught off guard as the company’s anti-union meetings were very low-key backroom affairs and targeted specific departments. The company conducted physiological profiles of workers and only invited “persuadable” workers to anti-union meetings.

“Hopefully, we can work out some of the issues, you know, we had here and now hopefully, the Labor Board will flip the mandatory captive audience meeting room. And we won’t have to endure that again next year”, said Garner in an interview with Payday Report. 

The UAW doesn’t see the 44%-56% vote as a sign of defeat. Often, unions try multiple times before winning. The UAW tried twice at Volkswagen in Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019 before winning big in 2024, but at Mercedes, this was the first time workers had seen the company’s manipulation, psychological profiling, and complex disinformation tactics.

“The company told the workers to give the new CEO a chance. That’s exactly what Volkswagen told its workers in 2019. And in 2024, Volkswagen workers realized it’s not about a CEO,” said UAW President Shawn Fain.

Mercedes offered time off the grueling assembly line in these meetings and asked workers to “give them another chance.” As a sign of good faith, Mercedes eliminated a two-tier wage system and gave what UAW Communications Director Jonah Furman has labeled a “UAW Pay Bump.”

After months of more personalized meetings with plant workers, Mercedes decided to fire the plant manager. The new plant manager, Federico Kochlowski, went on a charm offensive and won many workers over. It was yet another sign that Mercedes was willing to change without bringing in the UAW, which was painted as an outside union from Detroit.

National Champion Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban Throws UAW under the Bus

Late in the campaign, Alabama football coach Nick Saban started disparaging the UAW in the press, a distraction the UAW did not need, while Mercedes worked hard to sow doubts among hesitant workers.

Legendary Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban, who coached Alabama for 16 years, had asked UAW ally More Perfect Union to take down an ad in which the famous football coach praised the UAW. 

“It never scares me that people are organized. General Motors and the automotive industry has had unions for a long time, and they’ve survived, fairly well I think,” Saban says in a pro-union ad run by the pro-union group More Perfect Union.

“There’s been a lot of businesses that have been successful and worked with unions for many, many years. So I’m not anti-union. Unionize it, make it like the NFL,” he said of college football players seeking to unionize.

Payday Report learned that the University of Alabama had gotten YouTube to take down More Perfect Union’s ad, which features Saban’s endorsement of unions. The University of Alabama has claimed copyright infringement because More Perfect Union displayed the university logo in the video’s background.

The controversy created by the famous Alabama football coach made the UAW look bad, and the company begged workers to give them “just one more chance.”

Mercedes’ “Give Me One More Chance to Fix Things” Approach

The UAW did not have a traditional organizing committee that regularly assessed each worker. In some unions like the UE, the union will appoint one shop steward for every ten workers. This way, the union knows precisely how each worker feels.

However, after the “Stand Up Strike,” the UAW hoped to move fast. They adopted a staff-light, digital-heavy approach that emphasized speed over building deep committees. Workers like Kirk Garner, who had been involved in organizing on the shop floor, thought it was a gamble but worth it.

“This is a new age—we’re in the digital age—and it’s somewhat of a new way of organizing from older people to younger people,” says Garner. “I think we saw it in Amazon in New York. They used a lot of internet and phones instead of traditional house calling, having big committee meetings, you know, three or four days a week.”

(Listen to our podcast on how the UAW was using digital media to promote an entirely different approach at UAW)

A Union PR Game that Didn’t Resonate In Plant Backrooms

Before the Volkswagen union vote in April, UAW leaders publicly declared on Twitter that there would be a blowout victory at Chattanooga ahead of the final vote.

After the 73% vote was announced at Volkswagen in April, UAW Communications Director Jonah Furman tweeted, “We keep telling you we’re gonna win. And we keep winning.”

The day before the Mercedes vote, UAW leaders told publications, including ours, that they would win big in Alabama.

In Alabama, the UAW filed with 70% of workers signing up before the Volkswagen vote in early April. UAW officials and other reporters told us they had gained members after the positive media coverage of the win in Chattanooga.

“It came real quick by hundreds and hundreds of people,” Garner told us earlier this month in describing union momentum at the plant in Alabama following Volkswagen’s 73% victory in Chattanooga. “It was just like, immediate. People started jumping on board. And so with momentum (it) keeps on going. It’s just blossomed into this, probably over a 70% majority now. So we should end up about where Volkswagen did.”

Heading into the high-profile vote, the media gave generally positive coverage of the union, with most media outlets predicting a win.

As someone who spent a decade in the South covering many failed union drives, I, like many other labor reporters, wanted to believe that something had fundamentally changed after the UAW landslide 73% victory in Chattanooga.

The positive media coverage, however, failed to resonate in the plant’s backrooms, where managers sowed doubts in personal one-on-one conversations about workplace conditions.

Now, after the 12% loss in Alabama, Furman was defensive about the union’s bullishness leading up to the organizing-light approach.

“All your best laid plans and theories and handbooks are nothing compared to real life experience. Trying stuff. Taking risks. Trying again,” tweeted Furman. “Mercedes Alabama has been open since 1993. This was the first union vote at the plant. We can’t keep watching and waiting forever.”

After 25 Years & Solid 1st Vote, UAW Mercedes Takes More Traditional Organizing Approach

UAW Local 112 Vice President Kirk Garner thinks it’s likely to see a union election within a year or two. It’s common for plants where workers lost by about 10% to win within a year or two after more workers are educated and engaged on union issues.

Garner says he and the 2,000 of his co-workers who voted for the union are willing to keep working. After all, the union only lost by approximately 600 votes. Now, with time to build a more traditional organizing committee, Garner feels confident that the UAW can win.

“Going forward, we’re gonna we’re going to, you know, change a few things and, and maybe, hopefully, you’ll have a different outcome a year from now,” says Garner.

Kirk first got involved in union organizing in the late 1990s at Mercedes in Alabama when he was 35. Now 60 years old, Garner says he is determined to get a union at Mercedes in Alabama before he retires.

When I asked Garner how he could continue fighting for 25 years on the shop floor, the 60-year-old Garner said it was because of his kids.

“You just always hope that your kids don’t have to work as hard. I just hope my kids never work as hard as I did,” says Garner.