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UAW gets closer to unionizing Volkswagen, Mercedes workers in the South

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Auto Workers had a couple of big wins last year, and now the union is waging a campaign throughout the South. NPR's Andrea Hsu has been following the story and joins us now. Andrea, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: How momentous is what's happening in the South now?

HSU: Well pretty momentous. For decades, the UAW has been trying to organize Southern auto plants, but it's had little success. But since late last year, the union has been on kind of a tear. Just this week, the UAW announced that autoworkers at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., have filed for a union election. That's a first for that plant. And Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., are even farther along. They're going to start voting on whether to join the UAW in less than two weeks. And, Scott, I've been so struck by how fast this has happened, I decided I wanted to go down to Alabama to find out what was going on.

SIMON: What did you hear from workers there?

HSU: Well, I talked to several workers who build Mercedes SUVs. They complain that their wages have stagnated. Their health care has gotten more expensive. The work is too exhausting for what they're paid. And most galling to many of these workers is that several years ago, Mercedes introduced a two-tier wage system. The company decided it was going to pay new hires a lot less than those who came before them. Now, the workers say Mercedes got rid of this system after the union campaign got going, but workers are still really mad about it, so mad that they started signing union cards. I met this guy, Jeremy Kimbrell. He's worked at Mercedes for 24 years, and he's been through a number of failed union drives. He told me this time, things just kind of snowballed.

JEREMY KIMBRELL: You know, we started signing authorization cards Thanksgiving weekend, and it just stacked up quick. It was like workers were starving for it, and it took off.

SIMON: And, Andrea, the South has been notably challenging for unions, hasn't it?

HSU: Yeah, for sure. Alabama and Tennessee both have constitutional amendments protecting their right-to-work laws. Those laws weaken unions by prohibiting employers from forcing workers to become union members or pay dues. This was a big part of why foreign automakers chose to build cars in the South. They didn't want to have to deal with unions. And now you have politicians and the business community warning, hey, these companies might pick up and leave if workers join the UAW. I talked with American University Professor Stephen Silvia about this. He says that is a valid concern.

STEPHEN SILVIA: This is why the UAW is trying to organize the entire South all at once.

HSU: Because he says if all the Southern plants unionize, companies couldn't just move to the next state over. Now, that would be quite a feat for the UAW and for labor.

SIMON: Are they close to doing it?

HSU: Well, you know, many of the workers at Mercedes believe they do have the votes to unionize. But we did also hear some opposition. We met Jay White, who's a parts quality technician at Mercedes. He's the guy on the plant floor who wears an anti-union sticker on his shirt, and he's always got extra stickers at the ready for whoever asks for one.

JAY WHITE: I keep them in my pocket, and I say, here, you're welcome to one.

HSU: Now, Jay White has been at Mercedes for almost 20 years, and he says the company has given him a good life. He doesn't think a union would be helpful. He thinks it would just be another layer of bureaucracy. And he fears jobs could be lost if labor costs go up. Now, he did tell us he feels that the pro-union sentiment is stronger now than it has been in past union campaigns. He says maybe it's generational. Maybe younger workers haven't thought about the downsides of unions. In any event, he's not sure how this latest push from the UAW will turn out, either at his plant there in Alabama or elsewhere in the South.

SIMON: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks so much for being with us.

HSU: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.