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A drive through Alabama shows how pro-union sentiments are rising in the deep South


The labor movement is riding high at the moment.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Union yes. Union yes.

KELLY: The United Auto workers scored a decisive win this month, unionizing the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. But to really understand labor in America, go even farther south. Take a drive through Alabama. This would not be a long ride - just 25 mile stretch of Interstate 20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Along this road, union hopes have been raised, crushed and dragged out for years. NPR's Andrea Hsu and Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom take us on an Alabama road trip.

AUTOMATED VOICE: In a quarter-mile, merge on to I-20 West.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: We're starting our drive at the latest union hot spot, Mercedes-Benz, where workers will vote on whether to join the UAW in just a couple of weeks.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: This auto plant is massive. More than 5,000 workers here build luxury SUVs.

HSU: It's like a city.

JEREMY KIMBRELL: It is. It really is.

HSU: Jeremy Kimbrell worked at the plant since 1999. Today we're meeting him at a UAW outpost, where workers stop in to pick up red T-shirts, buttons.

KIMBRELL: We have some hats - union yes. That was a hot item with the workers at the plant.

HSU: Kimbrell is one of the lead organizers inside the plant. And he's finding workers are not only open to unionizing. They're hungry for it.

KIMBRELL: Man, unbelievable. They were like, where are y'all been? We're like, man, we've always been here. We want to know where y'all were.

BISAHA: For years, some workers were scared. Jacob Ryan's been at the plant for a decade, building tool boxes and working with robots. He remembers meeting pro-union employees when he started as a temp.

JACOB RYAN: They were handing out flyers in the lobby. I read it and ended up throwing it away before I got to my team room because I didn't want to be seen with a flyer.

HSU: After all, unions are not exactly welcome in Alabama. People here say the reason Mercedes and other carmakers came to Alabama was to avoid unions.

BISAHA: And for years, this deal really paid off for workers, too. Mercedes was seen as this great employer, definitely paying a lot more than other jobs in the region and, at one point, even as much as the union auto jobs up north.

HSU: Given all that, Jacob Ryan worried that getting involved with a union might cost him a job.

RYAN: I was still a new worker, nervous. I was scared it could be bad.

BISAHA: Are you still scared?

RYAN: No, not at this point.

BISAHA: In fact, Jacob Ryan is now the guy handing out flyers.

HSU: So how did this shift happen? Well, first, things that Mercedes have changed. Workers say over the past five years, wages stopped growing. And in 2020, the company introduced a two-tier wage system. New hires would top out at a lower wage than their coworkers.

BISAHA: Then there was the UAW strike last fall. Southern auto workers were inspired seeing the UAW win record contracts. That set off in organizing blitz at Mercedes.

HSU: At the same time, Mercedes has been trying to convince workers that they don't need a union. The company ended that hated two-tier pay system and announced raises, and they're warning workers that unions may be more trouble than they're worth, citing something that happened just 10 minutes up the road.

BISAHA: And that's where we go next on our Alabama union journey.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Continue for half a mile.

BISAHA: We cross I-20 for our destination, a coal mine owned by a company called Warrior Met Cal.

HSU: This is a metallurgical coal plant, producing coal that's used not for energy but for steel. What you can see above ground is a steady stream of black coal pouring out of a chute.

BISAHA: Yeah. How high up would you say that pile of coal is?

LARRY SPENCER: It's probably around a hundred, 150 foot high.

BISAHA: We're with Larry Spencer with United Mine Workers of America. About eight years ago, these mines went bankrupt. Wall Street investors came in to save the business, and to save their jobs, workers agreed to big cuts of their pay and benefits. They thought that would be temporary. But five years on, the miners were still waiting to be made whole. In 2021, about a thousand of them went on strike.

SPENCER: All they asked for was, hey. Look. We got you back on your feet. Just give us back what we had to start with.

BISAHA: They stayed on strike for two years.

HSU: For the miners and their families, going that long without their paychecks was really painful. But the company was fine. Steel prices were skyrocketing. Labor was brought in from out of state, and profits soared.

BISAHA: Finally, the union called uncle and ended the strike. A couple hundred miners went back. Many others had already left for other jobs. And today, a year after the strike ended...

SPENCER: We're still negotiating. We're not having much movement from them as far as getting a contract.

HSU: Mercedes has been using Warrior Met as a cautionary tale. In videos they've been making workers watch, the message is, just because you have a union doesn't mean you get what you want. Labor law is pretty weak, and companies have a lot of power and money to push back against unions. Disputes can drag on for years. Another example of this lies just half an hour east.

AUTOMATED VOICE: In two miles, take exit 108.

BISAHA: This here is our last stop off I-20 on our Alabama union tour, this massive Amazon warehouse in Bessemer. A union election at this place three years ago ignited union hopes across the country.

HSU: Some workers inside this Alabama warehouse said they were tired of the constant monitoring, the constant fear of being fired for going too slow, all for not enough pay despite the company's pandemic profits.

ISAIAH THOMAS: The job at Amazon was hell on Earth.

HSU: Isaiah Thomas was a college student who worked on the docks at the warehouse.

THOMAS: It was really exciting, especially, like, for me. To hear that workers were trying to unionize was a sense of hope.

BISAHA: But then came the vote. The union lost overwhelmingly. JC Thompson was one of the no votes.

J C THOMPSON: Of course. No. I voted no.

BISAHA: He'd started at Amazon in the spring of 2020, when COVID had shut everything else down.

THOMPSON: When people came to me to talk about it, I always asked why. Why was the need? And they, you know, always say, well, we need more money. I say, well, who don't need more money? Amazon's starting pay was 15 bucks. You're talking about way above minimum wage, and we didn't need a degree.

HSU: That no vote would have been the end of the story, but labor officials found Amazon had illegally interfered in the election. So a rerun election was held a year later. This time, the election was too close to call. And, again, there were complaints that the election was tainted. So a new hearing underway right now could lead to a third election.

BISAHA: It's now been more than three years since that first vote - still no union. But Michael Foster, who led the organizing at Amazon, says this work requires patience.

MICHAEL FOSTER: This is not a rabbit race. This is a race for the turtles.

HSU: He says, look at everything that's happened since the first Amazon vote - unions at Starbucks, Trader Joe's, REI, the strikes, the enthusiasm.

FOSTER: I believe that's what our fight was for - not to necessarily maybe win because our win is coming. But our spark was to wake up a sleeping giant.

BISAHA: Back at Mercedes, where we started our road trip, assembly worker Moesha Chandler says her team has definitely woken up.

MOESHA CHANDLER: They're like, what's the next move? What's the next step? The momentum is great.

HSU: And Chandler can't wait to start fighting for a union contract.

CHANDLER: I feel like I know that we're going to have to strike, but I'm ready for it.

BISAHA: All right. So you're not just ready to sign and vote for a union. You're already thinking about striking.

CHANDLER: Absolutely - 10 steps ahead.

BISAHA: When it comes to unions, the headlines tend to focus on the big moments, like Volkswagen just voting to unionize in Tennessee and now possibly Mercedes and Alabama in just a couple weeks. But the real work needed to get to those moments - that takes years with no guarantee they'll happen or they'll pay off for workers after they do. On the I-20 in Alabama, I'm Stephan Bisaha.

HSU: And I'm Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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