With 70% Sign Up, 25-Year Shop Floor Mercedes UAW VP Talks How Things Changed in Alabama

UAW Local 149 Vice President Kirk Garner, a veteran of 25 years of shop floor organizing talks how things changed for union at Mercedes in Alabama as he pushed on the factory floor for decades. Garner (center wearing a UAW shirt) meets with foreign and international labor leaders in 2013 with former UAW President Bob King (UAW)

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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 73% of the vote in Chattanooga in April, after two failed defeats.

The twin minority unions in Alabama and Tennessee kept in touch. They went to meetings, international conferences and meet with the owners of the German automakers that employed them. They acted like a union and fought for ten years fought as minority union after fifteen years of failed union efforts at Mercedes.

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. Interestingly, the UAW nationally is 30% university employees. Much like in higher education, young people are driving dramatic landslide victories in the auto industry.

“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. 

Subscribe and listen to our podcast of 25 year shop floor veteran of Alabama Mercedes Drive UAW Local 149 Vice President Kirk Garner.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]