‘Alabama is not Michigan’: Ivey signs union bill as Mercedes workers vote on joining UAW

By John Sharp

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announces the signing of SB231 while speaking during a Huntsville/Madison County Chamber Alabama Update on Monday, May 13, 2024.photo courtesy of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s Office

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Monday she signed legislation that could lead to revoking economic incentives on companies that voluntarily recognize labor unions starting next year.

But the legislation, SB231, has no impact on any of the proceedings occurring this week east of Tuscaloosa, where thousands of employees at a Mercedes-Benz plant will decide if they want to be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW).

“Alabama is not Michigan,” Ivey said to approximately 1,000 people during a chamber of commerce function in Huntsville. “Huntsville … Tuscaloosa … they’re not Detroit. We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state.”

Ivey’s remarks occurred on the first day of voting during a historic election at the automaker’s Vance factory. The unionization effort comes amid a $40 million campaign by the UAW to organize foreign-owned assembly plants across the South. A union drive is also underway at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery.

It also comes after the UAW won big in November with three Detroit automakers – General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Following union strikes at those Michigan companies, the UAW negotiated contracts that led to higher pay and arguably better working conditions and emboldened the labor group to target 13 non-union automakers, including the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance.

Under federal law, workers can request unionization if 30% of workers at a specific workplace sign union authorization cards. The UAW said it requests elections once it gets 70% backing for union support at a specific workplace.

Withholding incentives

Ivey signed SB231 into law on Friday. The new law, which passed out of the Alabama Legislature last week, withholds economic incentives the state offers to lure a company into the state if it voluntarily recognizes a union or if the union does not hold a secret ballot during an election.

Similar laws have been adopted in Tennessee and Georgia.

The new law sets a Jan. 1, 2025, date to revoke economic incentives if a company voluntarily accepts a union.

Mercedes-Benz is not voluntarily supporting the unionizing effort, and national media reports suggest the corporate efforts in Alabama are far stronger in opposing the effort than they were in Chattanooga, Tenn., last month. Workers at a Volkswagen plant overwhelmingly voted to join the UAW with 73% support following two previous failed attempts dating back to 2014. That vote represented the first time since the 1940s, that workers at an auto plant in the South voted in an election to join a union.

The secret ballot election occurs through the National Labor Relations Board, which governs how union elections are held whenever a company does not voluntarily recognize unionizing efforts. The NLRB is not involved during voluntary unionization efforts, which are supported by a company, and which have seen an increase in recent years.

A Mercedes-Benz official declined to comment about the new Alabama law. The company won a $253 million economic incentive package from the state to lure the plan to Alabama in 1993.

A Mercedes-Benz spokesperson said the following, “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.”

The UAW declined to comment.

Harmless or undermining unions?

Curtis Travis
Alabama State Rep. Curtis Travis, D-Tuscaloosa, on the Alabama House floor as pictured on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at the State House in Montgomery, Ala.John Sharp

Republicans, during an Alabama House floor debate last week, called SB231 as “harmless,” but also said it was a way to ensure workers are not intimidated by pro-union drives.

Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, said last week that SB231 was not aimed at blocking a unionization effort, but would protect people like single mothers working in a factory who might be intimidated by men who would want her to back unionizing.

Democratic lawmakers said the legislation underscored Alabama Republican’s efforts to undermine unionization.

Alabama is one of 27 “right-to-work” states that allow employees to refrain from union membership. The state enshrined its pushback from unions in 2016, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees workers in Alabama cannot be forced to job labor groups or pay dues, even if their employer is unionized.

“I think my concern is we’re forcing the National Labor Relations Board to be involved in all elections,” said Rep. Curtis Travis, D-Tuscaloosa.

Ivey said SB231 “further protect our Alabama jobs,” and ensures that “every vote is counted.”

“My message is clear: I am standing up for Alabamians and protecting our jobs,” Ivey said. “We will not let this threat from Detroit deter our progress, deter our hope and deter our folks’ prosperity.”

The signing of SB231 also comes as the state’s union membership steadily increases, albeit still lagging behind national averages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Alabama had 156,000 union members last year, or 7.5% of the workforce, up from a historic low of 5.9% in 2021, and 7.2% in 2022. The national average is 10%. Eleven other states had union membership below 5%, with South Carolina having the lowest participation rate at 2.3%.

The last major unionization effort at a manufacturing plant in Alabama occurred in 2021, when thousands of hourly workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer voted nearly two-to-one against unionizing during a secret, mail-in election.

The UAW vote is expected to last through Friday. Vote totals are also expected to be released on Friday.