The United Auto Workers’ historic campaign to organize the South faces its second big test this week as more than 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers near Tuscaloosa, Ala., will vote on whether to join the union. Balloting at the Alabama plant began Monday and continues through May 17. This follows the historic UAW victory in neighboring Tennessee last month, when more than 70 percent of workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant voted to unionize. 

The German automaker came to Alabama in 1993, lured to the South—like many European and Japanese manufacturers—by the promise of low wages and an anti-union culture. Previous organizing drives failed, stymied by opposition from management and the state’s political and economic elite. But the UAW is confident that this time will be different. In recent years, wages at Alabama automakers have stalled, with inflation-adjusted average wages for autoworkers 11 percent lower in 2019 than in 2002. Contrast this with a new UAW-negotiated contract with Detroit’s Big Three automakers last fall, which will raise wages by at least 25 percent over the next four years. 

The new Big Three contract was one of a series of victories recently notched by unions after decades of defeats. Strikes in 2023 set a 20-year record. Workers have successfully organized at some of the biggest companies in corporate America: AmazonStarbucks, and Google. And public opinion is more strongly pro-organized labor than since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the Oval Office: According to the latest polling, nearly 70 percent of all Americans approve of unions. And by overwhelming numbers, they sided with striking actors, writers, and autoworkers last year. 

“The UAW’s current campaign may prove to be the most consequential yet.”

But the UAW’s current campaign may prove to be the most consequential yet, if it succeeds in overcoming the labor movement’s greatest obstacle: organizing the South. 

Since the introduction of slavery to American soil, Southern elites have fostered a political economy based on a disenfranchised and low-wage workforce that maximized profits for large-scale tobacco, cotton, and sugar production. That model persisted after the Emancipation Proclamation, focusing heavily on labor-intensive, low-wage industries like agriculture and textiles. 

Organized labor posed a threat to this model, and not just in terms of economics. The logic of a movement based on collective action and worker solidarity ran counter to the Jim Crow system, even if some labor unions upheld the color divide. “Southern elites and political chieftains detested unions,” as Robert Zieger wrote in his classic history of the CIO. “[They] regarded any gesture toward the expansion of union influence in mass production industries as a fundamental challenge to their power.” To be sure, organizers faced significant resistance in the North as well, but despite repeated efforts in the 1930s and ’40s to organize the South, the Southern establishment’s total opposition, combined with appeals to white solidarity to keep the workforce divided along racial lines, halted labor’s postwar march at the Mason-Dixon line. 

The South has seen enormous changes in the last half-century, but even as Jim Crow fell, anti-unionism remained core to the region’s political culture. Indeed, its economic shift from cash crops to manufacturing provided a new impetus for opposition to organized labor. An anti-union culture became a part of the pitch to multinational corporations to set up shop in the Deep South. Meanwhile, as the region flipped from solidly Democratic to Republican, a new generation of politicians picked up the anti-union gauntlet. The Dixiecrats’ overtly racial appeals gave way to corporate boosterism and authoritarian hostility to workplace rights.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was one of the loudest advocates of such an approach, relishing her role as union-buster in chief. While governor, she waged a personal and vocal campaign against an organizing drive at a Charleston-area factory. She also told CEOs of companies with existing collective-bargaining agreements that they were not welcome in South Carolina. In previous efforts to organize in Chattanooga, the UAW faced the opposition of not only the entire Tennessee GOP establishment, but also DC-based libertarian operative Grover Norquist and his rotating cast of astroturf groups. 

In a kind of inverse Leninism, Southern politicos—seeming to believe they knew the best interests of capitalists better than the capitalists themselves—were sometimes more anti-union than the companies they were supposedly protecting. For example, during a failed 2014 Volkswagen union campaign, the company denied by then-Sen. Bob Corker’s claim that a “no” vote for the UAW would lead to increased investment in the plant.  

This time, the UAW overcame the opposition of both the political and business establishment and decades of ingrained anti-unionism. One reason is changing worker perceptions of the union. A decade ago, in the eyes of critics, the UAW was the “Obama bailout” union—but also a union that had agreed to concession after concession that made its wage rates and benefits packages much less attractive to nonunion workers. Today’s UAW is a union under a rejuvenated leadership that took on the Big Three and won historic wage raises and job-security guarantees amid the worst inflation in decades. Organizers in Chattanooga also avoided any hint of partisanship, which the opposition had used to great effect in previous rounds. As Luis Feliz Leon wrote in Labor Notes, organizers this time around “kept the focus on workers improving their jobs and bettering the lives of their families, rather than getting drawn into a fight with GOP actors, an astroturf campaign, or a billboard war.”

Another factor is a uniquely favorable national political and economic environment for labor. Frustration over stagnant wages in the face of rising prices, the high profile of labor unions in the last couple of years, and the emergence of a younger and much more pro-union generation, not to mention a tight labor market, have all given workers greater motivation and power to mount collective action.

The UAW’s campaign to organize the South promises to upend the race-to-the-bottom economic model that has long made the region a maquiladora zone for multinationals. A win at the Alabama Mercedes plant will likely provide momentum to the UAW’s campaign to organize the state’s Hyundai plant, where more than 30 percent of the workforce has already signed union cards. 

This domino effect, in turn, could spell a broader defeat for the politics of union-busting. Southern Republicans reacted to the UAW’s new efforts by dusting off their old playbook, denouncing unions as outsiders threatening the traditional Southern way of life. However, polls show that they are out of step with their constituents. In Tennessee, just 2 in 10 respondents view the UAW negatively, while more than half of Alabamans support the union. One Tennessee Republican got the message even before ballots were counted. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a vocal opponent of the UAW in the past, said that the choice of joining the union belonged to the workers alone, and that he was staying out of it. 

Three generations after the postwar peak of labor unionism and the New Deal order, working-class people across the political spectrum sense that they are under the sway of economic forces over which they have little control. For decades, corporations headquartered thousands of miles away, aided by pliant local politicians and sinister union-busting consultants, have disempowered working-class communities. By expanding collective bargaining into the South, the UAW is taking an important step toward giving American workers everywhere greater control over their lives.  

Alex Hogan is a speechwriter for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

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