Automakers rely on non-union plants in the South to drive down wages across the country. A UAW victory in Tennessee and an upcoming vote in Alabama could change that.

by Marc Bayard and Dev Wakeley, Otherwords

The United Auto Workers recently scored the largest union victory in decades in the South. Their success at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant could be a turning point for labor in a region long known for governmental hostility to unions.

The next test will be a UAW election scheduled for the week of May 13 at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama, a state that has attracted so much auto investment it has earned the nickname “the Detroit of the South.”

If the roughly 5,000 Mercedes workers vote to unionize, the ripple effects could empower workers nationwide.

UAW on strike rally sign

For decades, Southern states have pursued “low-road” development strategies, luring investors with massive public subsidies and repressive labor policies. This has pitted workers across the country against each other, undercutting everyone’s ability to secure fair compensation.

Alabama has spent $1.6 billion to woo Mercedes, along with Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda. All these foreign companies’ operations in the South are non-union, in contrast to the unionized Big Three of Ford, GM, and Stellantis.

This foreign investment has created thousands of Alabama jobs — but with weak worker protections, the state remains one of the nation’s poorest. And while these companies have enjoyed rising corporate profits, they have left workers behind.

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