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The result of a union election at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama is about to be revealed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're about to find out if autoworkers in the Deep South are ready to unionize. A union election at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama wraps up later this morning, and if workers vote yes, they would make history as the first auto plant workers to unionize in Alabama. NPR's Andrea Hsu is here to talk about this. Hi.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the autoworkers want?

HSU: Well, they say they want to end what they call the Alabama discount. You know, in the Deep South, companies can pay workers less because there aren't a lot of good-paying jobs in the area. Now, I went to Alabama. The plant is just outside Tuscaloosa. It's huge. You can kind of stand on a hill looking over these white rooftops that go on forever, it seems. More than 5,000 people work at this plant, and those who are calling for a union say they think a union could give them lower health care costs, more predictability in their schedules and, of course, higher wages.

INSKEEP: Sure.

HSU: You know, and actually, Steve, for years, Mercedes actually paid really good wages. They were comparable to union jobs up North, but workers at the plant told us over the past five years, wages started to slide. And then, of course, last fall came the UAW strike up North against the big three automakers, and workers at Ford, GM and Stellantis came out of that with these record contracts, these huge raises.

INSKEEP: Right.

HSU: Mercedes workers thought, you know, we deserve that, too. You hear people like Jeremy Kimbrell, who's been at Mercedes for 25 years. He's saying, this isn't right. You can't underpay people just because they live in the South. His slogan is end the Alabama discount.

JEREMY KIMBRELL: Companies say, we'll go down there to Alabama, with those poorly educated workers who'll work for less money to do the same job that pays more in other places. Think we've proven ourselves by now, so no, no more discount.

INSKEEP: OK, he's got that message, but hasn't the South been a tough place for unions in the past?

HSU: Yeah. In fact, the UAW has been trying to organize autoworkers in the South for decades, and for decades, workers just weren't that interested. There was this acknowledgment that the reason the jobs even existed in the Southern states was because it's cheaper to build cars there, but last month, the UAW finally put a crack in that shield. Workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted to unionize. It was the UAW's third attempt to organize that whole plant, and 73% of the workers there said yes to joining the union.

INSKEEP: So do you have any idea about how the 5,000 workers at the Mercedes plant are leaning in Alabama?

HSU: I really don't know. There's been one really big difference that sets these two campaigns apart. Workers at Volkswagen told us the company didn't really campaign against the union, but at Mercedes, it's a totally different story. Workers say Mercedes has just been relentless with its anti-union messaging over the past few months. They say Mercedes has warned them unions don't always deliver, and you have to pay union dues, and you don't have a say in how that money is spent. But Mercedes has also been telling workers, we hear you. We know there are things we need to fix. And just a few weeks ago, Steve, they even named a new CEO in Alabama. Workers got this video message from Jorg Burzer. He's a Mercedes board member back in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORG BURZER: In my opinion, the only path forward is for us to work together as one team to bring about the positive change you deserve.

INSKEEP: What are Alabama officials saying about this?

HSU: The state's governor, Kay Ivey, has warned that Alabama's model for economic success is under attack from the UAW. Her commerce secretary has warned that unionizing Mercedes would put jobs at risk because why would Mercedes stay in Alabama if they could build cars elsewhere for less? Now, analysts who watch the auto industry say it's unlikely Mercedes would just up and leave Alabama at this point because the plant is so successful. But still, these are really powerful messages, and I'm sure they've resonated with at least some share of workers at the plant.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks for coming by.

HSU: You're welcome. 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.