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A Loss at Mercedes-Benz Slows U.A.W.’s Southern Campaign

After suffering a setback at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama on Friday, the United Automobile Workers union’s efforts to organize other auto factories in the South is likely to slow and could struggle to make headway.

About 56 percent of the Mercedes workers who voted rejected the U.A.W. in an election after the union chalked up two major wins this year. In April, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted to join the union, the first large nonunion auto plant in the South to do so. Weeks later, the union negotiated a new contract bringing significant pay and benefit improvements for its members at several North Carolina factories owned by Daimler Truck.

“Losing at Mercedes is not death for the union,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It just means they’ll have less confidence going to the next plant. The U.A.W. is in it for the long run. I don’t think they’re going to stop just because they lost here.”

Since its founding in 1935, the U.A.W. has almost exclusively represented workers employed by the three Michigan-based automakers: General Motors, Ford Motor, and Chrysler, now part of Stellantis. And it has long struggled to make headway at plants owned by foreign manufacturers, especially in Southern states where anti-union sentiment runs deep.

Workers at the Volkswagen plant had voted against being represented by the U.A.W. twice by narrow margins before the recent union win there. An effort a decade ago to organize one of the Mercedes plants failed to build enough support for an election.

Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that broad union organizing efforts seldom proceeded smoothly. In the 1930s, the U.A.W. won recognition at G.M. and Chrysler but struggled at Ford, which continued employing nonunion workers for a few years.

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