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Federal labor officials to tally the votes from Alabama’s UAW ballot

We may soon learn whether the rank and file at Tuscaloosa’s Mercedes Benz factory wants to join the United Auto Workers. The National Labor Relations Board is set to add up the ballots from the rank and file at the European car maker’s North American plant. The United Auto Workers came into this week’s Alabama vote with the goal of cracking resistance in the deep south.

The UAW considered a potential win at Tuscaloosa’s Mercedes Benz factory to be a major prize in that effort. Alabama is among the southern states that lured foreign auto companies with big tax breaks, low labor costs, and a nonunion workforce. The UAW entered this week’s Alabama vote following a big win at Volkswagen in Chattanooga. The rank and file there voted by a seventy percent margin to go union. That win followed a bitter series of strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis last fall that led to big financial gains for UAW members. The effort in Alabama was meant to crack resistance to unions in the southern U.S. States like Alabama attracted foreign car companies with big tax breaks and right-to-work policies. Governor Kay Ivey warned autoworkers that going union could cost jobs. The Republican lawmaker also signed a measure that revokes economic incentives to businesses that recognize unions without a secret ballot first.

One moment of friction during this week’s vote came when former Alabama football coach Nick Saban called out the group More Perfect Union Solidarity for airing an advertisement that Saban says used his name and photo without permission. The ad included comments that the retired championship winning coach made when asked a question about the possible organization of college athletes. More Perfect Union Solidarity maintains that the ad does not take anything Saban said out of context.

After 20 years at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama, Brett Garrard said he is "not falling for the lies anymore" and will vote for a union. The company has repeatedly promised to improve pay and conditions, but Garrard said those promises have not materialized. "Mercedes claims that we're a family, one team, one fight. But over the years, I've learned one thing: This is not how I treat my family," Garrard said.

Garrard, 50, and other workers supporting the union told The Associated Press that their concerns include stagnating pay that has not kept up with inflation, insurance costs, irregular work shifts and a sense of being disposable in a plant where they assemble luxury vehicles that can cost more than $100,000.

"Yes, we're Southern autoworkers, but we deserve autoworker pay," Garrard said.

Mercedes currently advertises a starting hourly wage of $23.50 for full-time production members with pay topping out at about $34 in four years, according to a state worker training website. Several workers said they company recently increased pay only to try to stave off the union push.

Jacob Ryan, 34, has worked for Mercedes for 10 years, starting as a temporary worker around $17 per hour for "the same exact work" before being hired full time. Ryan, who says inflation is eating into employee paychecks, said he pays close to $1,200 each month for his son's day care and his daughter's after-school care.

"None of it goes to the employees. We're stuck where we were, paying way more for everything," Ryan said.

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. said in a statement that the company looks forward to all workers having a chance to cast a secret ballot "as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice" on unionization.

The company said its focus is to "provide a safe and supportive work environment" for workers.

"We believe open and direct communication with our Team Members is the best path forward to ensure continued success," the statement said.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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