Podcast: Payday Report With 70% UAW Sign Up, 25-Year Mercedes UAW Veteran Talks

With 70% UAW Sign Up, 25-Year Mercedes UAW Veteran Talks

By Mike Elk

Eleven years ago, I first met Kirk Garner, Vice President of UAW Local 112, the minority union at Mercedes in Vance, Alabama.

After the UAW was narrowly defeated in a union drive in 2014, it formed minority unions at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Mercedes in Vance, Alabama.

Both automakers were German and allowed the minority union in the South to sit in on meetings and discuss workplace issues with more sympathetic minds in union-heavy Germany.

For ten years, the UAW couldn’t attract enough members to win, but folks like Kirk, who has been involved in union organizing efforts at Mercedes in Vance, Alabama, keep trying.

“We’ve had a good network for the last two years, at Chattanooga, Volkswagen, they already had a minority union,” says Garner. “So they had a base to begin with, which helped speed things up. So you weren’t starting from scratch. And so we have a minority union at Mercedes.”

When UAW filed for a union election at Mercedes in April, they filed with 70% of the workers having signed cards. After the Volkswagen victory, Garner says that interest has expanded dramatically.

“it came real quick by hundreds and hundreds of people,” says Garner of the union, finally above 70%. “It was just like, immediate. People started jumping on board. And so with momentum (it) keeps on going. It’s just blossomed into this, probably over a 70% majority now. So we should end up about where Volkswagen did,” where the UAW won with 70% of the vote.

Garner says that the severe labor shortage has helped union efforts. Using Biden stimulus programs from the Inflation Recovery Act, Mercedes has used the federal government to pay for electricity. In the process, they had trouble finding workers.

With the plant expanding and management trying to get any “body they can get in the door,” says Garner, power dynamics have changed dramatically in the shop.

As the plant expanded, the automaker struggled to keep people employed, with wages starting at $21 an hour, and hired more prominent young workers. The younger workers at the plant seem much more receptive than Garner has seen in any of his 25 years of organizing.

Garner says that 65% of the workforce is under 30.

“When the labor shortage kicked in around COVID, a lot of older people left. So, the only people in the labor pool were the younger generation under 30. And so that’s what we’ve had to bring in. It’ll take years to balance out since we’ve got 65% under 30.”

With many people needing help with childcare costs, it’s difficult to get together union members for multiple weekly in-person meetings. However, the union relies heavily on Zoom, which became famous for organizers during the pandemic.

“This is a new age, we’re in the digital age, it’s somewhat of a new way of organizing from older people to younger people”. says Garner. “I think we saw it in Amazon in New York, they used a lot of internet and phones, instead of a traditional house calling, having big committee meetings, you know, three or four days a week.”

Please listen to the lessons of how union activists combine new and old methods to organize across generations and races in the digital age.

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