What Mercedes workers are looking for as a union vote approaches • Alabama Reflector | #elections | #alabama

VANCE — Brett Garrard wishes that he had more work-life balance.

His wife has Stage 4 cancer and undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks. He wants to go to his step-kids’ sports games. But his work schedule keeps changing. He can’t get a solid sleep schedule.

“When we had a three shift model I worked what they call C-shift at Mercedes, and I never missed a game,” said Garrard, a team leader and supply chain operator at Mercedes’ battery plant. “Never missed a school function. Veterans Day I was able to always be there with the kids and they were proud of that. And now I just have to call them and say ‘Hey, good luck.’”

Austin Brooks has spent his whole life in and out of the hospital. 

When he graduated high school, people told him to go work for Mercedes, because “they got the best health care down here.”

Constantly lifting and moving things at work has given him back pain and joint pain over the last two years. He had to go to the emergency room recently, and his family had to help him into the car. At the end, he said, Mercedes’ health care plan covered nine dollars of the $50 visit.

“I just could not move, it was in that much pain,” said Brooks, who is a team member at the battery plant.

Both are involved in the months-long drive in the plant by United Auto Workers that will culminate in an election next week on whether to establish a union at the plant. 

Symbolic importance

Brett Garrard, team leader and supply chain operator at the Mercedes battery plant wears a wrist band reading “Stand Up” at the UAW Local 112 headquarters in Vance, Ala., Thursday, May 2, 2024. (Will McLelland for Alabama Reflector)

The vote, coming weeks after Volkswagen workers at a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to organize under the UAW, will carry major symbolic weight. Mercedes-Benz, lured to Alabama by relatively low wages and a generous economic incentive package from the state in 1993, is widely credited with kickstarting Alabama’s automotive industry and setting a template still followed by the state’s industrial recruiters today. 

The UAW has tried to organize the factory for years, including an effort in 2014. But none have gotten as far as the current drive.

The union said in February that a majority of workers had signaled support for the potential union through signing union cards. The union called for the vote in April saying a “supermajority” of employees had signed a petition for a union, though it did not provide precise numbers. The UAW said in January that it would call for an election when 70% of workers signed union authorization cards. 

Workers who support the union have cited pay and benefit stagnation; uncertain shift scheduling and the use of temp workers in pushing for the union. While autoworkers around the state generally make more than the median household income ($64,682 in a year v. $59,674), a November study by Alabama Arise, a nonprofit that advocates on poverty and working class issues, found that wage growth had stalled. 

The study found further disparities in wages between men and women, and white workers and workers of color. Dev Wakeley, worker policy advocate at Arise, said Monday that unionization could help with these disparities.

“I think that would be a huge benefit of unionizing,” he said.

According to Arise, real wages for plant employees declined by 11% from 2002 to 2019. The report also found that Alabama workers’ wages trailed those of autoworkers in other states, and found Black workers, Hispanic workers and women were paid substantially less in the state automotive industry.  

Garrard said that previous union drives lost momentum because management would change their personality and promise they’re listening this time.

“But in 20 years I’ve heard the story,” he said. “I haven’t seen the fruits of it.”

“MBUSI fully respects our Team Members’ choice whether to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure every Team Member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice,” wrote a Mercedes-Benz spokesperson Monday. “We will continue to share facts and opinions through open and direct communication to support our Team Members in making an informed decision.”

Workers have said they have seen anti-union presentations at the plant. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has also criticized the union drive. 

“Since Mercedes Benz announced they were making our state home to their first U.S. manufacturing facility in 1993, tens of thousands of Alabama families have been positively impacted,” Ivey wrote in a statement Monday. “Let me be crystal clear that Joe Biden’s UAW has no interest in seeing Alabamians succeed. Instead, their interest here is ensuring money from hardworking Alabama families ends up in the UAW bank account. That is why they are willing to spend $40 million to gain a foothold in the Southeast’s automotive powerhouse.”

A range of thoughts

During a shift change at the Mercedes-Benz plant on Thursday, employees expressed a range of views on the union vote. Some said the jobs were better than comparable ones in the area. 

Jason Cook, a team leader in the paint shop, declined to say which way he would vote, but he said that he felt that their current jobs were good for the area.

“I mean, I give my opinion that way,” he said. “But I do see some things from the pro-side where they could have some legitimate reasons to actually vote it in.”

James Williams, who works in the body shop, said he would vote no for similar reasons.

“I don’t think you’ll find any better than what we’ve got anywhere around here,” he said.

As he spoke, Williams shouted at a colleague who was headed towards the turnstile about the union – “You want a ‘yeah,’ that’s a ‘yeah’ right there,” he said. 

William Steward, who works in paint, said that he was a yes vote because he wanted more people to advocate for them. 

“We don’t really have anybody that fight for us,” he said.

Garrard said he began to sense changes at the plant in 2008. Employees, he said, were forced into buyouts with callback rights, but they were replaced with temporary employees.

“You know, 20 years is a long time,” he said. “I’ve seen several different CEOs come and go. And the story is always the same. ‘Hey, it’ll get better. We’re listening to you.’ But it doesn’t. They give you a two dollar an hour raise, they up your insurance premiums on the back end of it. So where’d the raise go? Not in our bank account.”

Garrard said recent UAW victories had encouraged organization. He said there is momentum this time: the UAW won a major strike last year against the Big Three automakers and “oh man, there was a buzz, it was electric;” Volkswagen gets a union and “wow, there’s momentum, we could do this, maybe someone will hear us;” and Daimler Truck wins a contract and “it was big for them, as it should be.”


Alabama officials have not shied away from their own opposition to the union. Ivey has repeatedly called UAW an “out of state interest group” and accused the organization of threatening the state’s economic development model. Last month, Ivey signed a letter ahead of the Chattanooga vote suggesting that voting for a union would cost jobs. 

We need your efforts to serve as a model to other local areas grappling with this threat from Detroit,” she said in February. “Alabamians work harder than anyone and make the best automobiles in the world. And we must not let UAW tell us any different.”

The Business Council of Alabama has also opposed the union. It has launched an anti-union website and wrote that unionization could harm Alabama’s economy.

“I remain confident that Alabama’s workers are too smart and savvy to fall for the claims of snake oil salesmen who peddle UAW union membership as the magic elixir that will fix all that ails us,” wrote Clay Scofield, a BCA executive vice president and a former Alabama Senate majority leader.

A message seeking comment was left with BCA on Monday. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 7.5% of Alabama’s workforce belonged to a union in 2023, the highest rate in the South. 

Garrard and Brooks said that managers at the plant, as well as an app, have been advocating against the union. 

An Iphone
Brett Garrard, team leader and supply chain operator at the Mercedes battery plant shows a picture on his phone of the various anti-union material Mercedes publishes on their employee app at the UAW Local 112 headquarters in Vance, Ala., Thursday, May 2, 2024. (Will McLelland/Alabama Reflector)

Garrard provided some materials that wrote such as stating that public shaming could result from not paying union dues and information about UAW officials having been convicted for embezzlement.

Garrard said that he’s not worried about the plant moving out of Alabama because of a potential union. He said that supply and demand fluctuates. He said there were buyouts and cutbacks around 2008, but when the economy strengthens, people buy cars and production increases.

“They’re going to build this car and they’re going to build it in Alabama,” he said. “There’s billions of dollars invested in it. Our politicians made sure they had an easy avenue to get here. They’re not going anywhere. They just want– they don’t want things to change. They don’t want us breaking the status quo.”


Voting on the union will start next Monday and run through Friday, May 17. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union elections, said it plans to count ballots and announce the totals on May 17. 

Some workers said Thursday they were undecided. Dante Keller, cell operator, said that he was waiting to see who would speak about insurance, including retirement insurance.

“Right now, I don’t seem like nobody’s offering that,” he said.

Garrard and Brooks said workers ought to have a greater share of the company’s profits. They noted the Vance plant manufactures luxury SUV models, including the GLE and GLS, as well as the EQS and EQE, two luxury electric cars.

“We’re building Mercedes, we’re building a luxury vehicle so if any auto worker is deserving of a share in the profits–” said Garrard.

“Then it should be the luxury car brand,” said Brooks.

Garrard also said southern autoworkers “shouldn’t be punished” for where they work. 

“I’m proud to be a southerner,” he said. “I’m hardworking. Mercedes says that’s why they came here. Because they’re hardworking people. So pay us what we’re worth. Treat us like we are the family you claim we are because I don’t treat my family this way.”

Two men sitting
Austin Brooks (left) and Brett Garrard (right) sit down with the Alabama Reflector to discuss their efforts to unionize Mercedes workers at the UAW Local 112 headquarters in Vance, Ala., Thursday, May 2, 2024. (Will McLelland/Alabama Reflector)

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