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How a stretch of I-20 through Alabama tells the story of American workers

Over the past several years, Alabama workers have found themselves at the center of three high-profile labor disputes in three industries. Antwon McGhee (left) has worked as a coal miner for 17 years. Isaiah Thomas formerly worked at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer. Moesha Chandler works in assembly at Mercedes-Benz in Vance.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Over the past several years, Alabama workers have found themselves at the center of three high-profile labor disputes in three industries. Antwon McGhee (left) has worked as a coal miner for 17 years. Isaiah Thomas formerly worked at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer. Moesha Chandler works in assembly at Mercedes-Benz in Vance.

Updated May 11, 2024 at 08:17 AM ET

VANCE, Ala. If you want to understand the state of labor in America today, take a drive through Alabama.

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Not a long drive. Just a 25-mile stretch of I-20, between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Here, union hopes have been raised, dashed and dragged out over years.

This is the Deep South, after all, where anti-union attitudes are enshrined in state constitutions.

The Mercedes-Benz visitor center sits adjacent to the plant where more than 5,000 workers can cast ballots on whether to join the UAW starting May 13.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The Mercedes-Benz visitor center sits adjacent to the plant where more than 5,000 workers can cast ballots on whether to join the UAW starting May 13.

A major test of those attitudes comes Monday, when more than 5,000 workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant will begin voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers union. It's the latest expression of deep worker dissatisfaction in a part of the state that's home to two other fiercely-fought labor disputes, all situated right off the same highway.

Stop #1: Mercedes-Benz

Inside the seven-million-square-foot Mercedes plant in Vance, Ala., the journey to this dramatic juncture has been neither straight nor smooth.

You hear it in the story of Jacob Ryan.

When Ryan first got to Mercedes as a temporary employee 10 years ago, he remembers a coworker handing him a pro-union flier in the lobby.

"I read it and ended up throwing it away before I got to my team room," Ryan says. "I didn't want to be seen with a flier."

As a new, temporary employee 10 years ago, Jacob Ryan was afraid to be seen holding a pro-union flier. Nowadays, he's the guy handing out fliers, always wearing his union hat.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
As a new, temporary employee 10 years ago, Jacob Ryan was afraid to be seen holding a pro-union flier. Nowadays, he's the guy handing out fliers, always wearing his union hat.

He feared it would jeopardize his future at the company.

Like his coworkers, Ryan knew the jobs at Mercedes were highly desirable. In a region that had lost its steel and textile industries long ago, the auto plant offered wages and benefits comparable to union jobs up north. The UAW didn't stand a chance in this environment.

In fact, a key reason the Alabama auto jobs even existed was because of the lack of unions. Alabama was among several southern states that lured foreign automakers with big incentives and the promise that unions would never be welcome. Within just a few decades, not just Mercedes, but Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Mazda were all building cars in Alabama, adding tens of thousands of well-paying jobs to the state's economy.

In 2016, the state doubled down on its anti-union stance. Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment protecting the state's right to work law. Workers here cannot be forced to join unions or pay dues, even if their workplace is unionized.

A UAW organizer speaks to Mercedes-Benz employees at the local union hall in Coaling, Ala.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A UAW organizer speaks to Mercedes-Benz employees at the local union hall in Coaling, Ala.

Amid all of this, efforts by the UAW to drum up union support at Mercedes sputtered along for decades, gaining little ground. Until now.

Stagnant wages and a raucous strike change minds

Ask workers what changed, and they'll point to a number of factors, with two that stand out.

First, they say life at Mercedes changed over the past five years. Wage growth slowed, and in early 2020, the company introduced a two-tier wage system. New hires would never earn as much as coworkers hired before them, even when doing the same job.

Mercedes declined to comment on these changes or its pay structure, but East Carolina University professor AJ Jacobs, author of The New Domestic Automakers in the United States and Canada, says Mercedes has been facing competition from other luxury carmakers and pressure to transition to electric vehicles.

"They need to cut, cut, cut, due to the enormous transition costs," Jacobs wrote in an email.

A second turning point came last fall, with the UAW strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler), which scored big wins for workers.

In Alabama, Jeremy Kimbrell, who's worked for Mercedes since 1999, was listening closely to the UAW's newly-elected president Shawn Fain railing against stratospheric CEO pay at Detroit's Big 3 automakers as worker wages were going backwards.

Jeremy Kimbrell, whose first job at Mercedes was in the paint shop in 1999, had struggled to get his colleagues interested in unionization efforts in the past.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Jeremy Kimbrell, whose first job at Mercedes was in the paint shop in 1999, had struggled to get his colleagues interested in unionization efforts in the past.

"You can tell right off, man, this guy don't play," says Kimbrell.

Just over a week after theBig 3 autoworkers ratified their record contracts, Mercedes workers began signing union cards. In three months, the UAW announced it had a majority of workers at the plant on board.

As the union campaign picked up steam, the company announced raises and an end to the two-tier pay system, according to workers who were agitating to join the union.

"They were hungry for it," Kimbrell says. "I've just been blown away by the lack of division inside the plant.

UAW pins that say "Union Yes" are available at the union hall.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
UAW pins that say "Union Yes" are available at the union hall.

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And now, Ryan, who once feared holding a flier, is the guy handing them out.

Mercedes tells its workers: You don't need a union

Mercedes, for its part, has been trying to convince workers that they don't need a union.

"We believe open and direct communication with our team members is the best path forward to ensure continued success," Mercedes said through a statement provided to NPR.

Two weeks before the union election, the company announced a leadership change in Alabama. Workers say they're being told to give their new CEO a chance.

Warrior Met Coal produces metallurgical coal for steel production in Brookwood, Ala.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Warrior Met Coal produces metallurgical coal for steel production in Brookwood, Ala.

And for months, there have been the videos. According to workers, Mercedes has been starting every shift with videos suggesting unions are more trouble than they're worth. One mentions a long, painful and unsuccessful labor fight just across the I-20, with the implied lesson: Just because you have a union doesn't mean you get what you want.

Stop #2: The coal mines

Under the rolling hills of Brookwood, Ala., are a series of mines that produce metallurgical coal, the kind used in steelmaking. In 2021, about a thousand coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America went on strike and stayed on strike for nearly two years.

It was a long time coming. The problems started in 2015 when the company that owned these mines declared bankruptcy, blaming a sharp drop in coal prices and high labor costs.

A year later, Wall Street investors bought the business, renaming it Warrior Met Coal. Workers agreed to big cuts to their pay and benefits in a bid to save their jobs.

The miners believed the cuts were temporary. But five years later, they were still working the same jobs for less money. Feeling betrayed, they called a strike and demanded their old wages and benefits back.

Antwon McGhee has spent 17 years working in the coal mines of Alabama.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Antwon McGhee has spent 17 years working in the coal mines of Alabama.

With workers out of the mines for months on end, a food bank was set up. Donations were collected from around the country. The workers did collect strike pay from their union — around $800 every two weeks — but it was a struggle for miners like Antwon McGhee, who were accustomed to bringing home bigger paychecks for their dangerous work.

"I had house notes that I had to catch up on and some friends I had to go to to borrow money for those house notes," says McGhee, a 17-year veteran of the coal company.

Meanwhile, the company's financial picture was looking up. Steel prices were skyrocketing. Warrior Met brought in miners from out of state, and profits soared.

Finally, in 2023, the union called uncle and ended the strike. Many of the miners had already crossed the picket line or left for other jobs. A couple hundred went back underground to work in the mines, without a new contract.

Negotiations continue to this day, with little movement. Hourly wages continue to be below where they were in 2016, according to the union. Still, McGhee maintains that he doesn't regret the strike.

"If you have something that you believe in, you fight for it, win or lose," he says.

The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., ignited labor hopes across the country in 2021.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., ignited labor hopes across the country in 2021.

When it comes to the challenges that unions face, what's happening at Warrior Met is Exhibit A. Companies with resources can push back against unions, dragging out disputes for years. Another example of this lies just half an hour east along I-20.

Stop #3: Amazon warehouse

In late 2020, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union stunned corporate America and the American public when amid the dark days of COVID, it announced it had collected enough employee signatures to call for a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

For the first time, thousands of hourly workers at an Amazon facility in the U.S. would vote on whether to unionize.

Isaiah Thomas worked on the docks at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Isaiah Thomas worked on the docks at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

"It was really exciting," says Isaiah Thomas, a college student who worked on the docks at the warehouse. "To hear that workers were trying to unionize was a sense of hope."

Describing the job as "hell on earth," Thomas says workers were fed up with the constant monitoring and the ever-present fear of being fired for working too slowly. Some felt underpaid at a time when the company was raking in profits due to the pandemic.

But when the mail-in ballots were tallied, the vote was nearly two to one, against unionizing.

Among those voting no was JC Thompson, who sought a job at Amazon weeks after the warehouse opened, drawn by the starting wage of $15 an hour.

JC Thompson, now an area manager for Amazon, voted against unionizing at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in 2021, unconvinced that workers needed a union.
Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom
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Gulf States Newsroom
JC Thompson, now an area manager for Amazon, voted against unionizing at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in 2021, unconvinced that workers needed a union.

"Way above minimum wage, and you didn't need a degree," says Thompson.

When pro-union coworkers talked to him about unionizing, he'd simply ask why?

To the argument that workers needed more money, he'd respond, "Well, who don't need more money?"

The union election at Amazon remains unresolved

But the union's loss at Amazon in 2021 was not the final word. Labor officials found Amazon had illegally interfered in the union campaign, including by getting the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on site where workers could drop their ballots. The union charged it was an intimidation tactic that kept some workers from voting out of fear that Amazon was surveilling the mailbox.

A do-over election was held a year later. That time, the election was too close to call, and again there were complaints that the election was tainted.

A new hearing is underway in Birmingham, which could lead to a third election.

Still, Michael Foster, who led the organizing at Amazon for the union, remains undaunted.

Michael Foster led the organizing at Amazon for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Michael Foster led the organizing at Amazon for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

"This is not a rabbit race. This is a race for the turtles," he says.

He points to everything that's unfolded since the first Amazon vote: new unions at Starbucks, Trader Joes, REI. Strikes from coast to coast. The hot labor summer of 2023.

"I believe that's what our fight was for," says Foster. "To wake up a sleeping giant."

Momentum at Mercedes as the union election nears

Back at Mercedes, assembly worker Moesha Chandler, who joined the company early last year, is unbothered by the disappointments that have unfolded elsewhere along the highway she takes to work.

Inside the plant, enthusiasm for the union is undeniable, she says. "They're like 'What's the next move? What's the next step?'"

With the election at Mercedes nearing, Chandler's mind had already jumped ahead. She's been thinking about what it'll take to get a union contract.

Moesha Chandler is an assembly worker at the Mercedes-Benz plant.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Moesha Chandler is an assembly worker at the Mercedes-Benz plant.

"I know that we're going to have to strike, but I'm ready for it," she says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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