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Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama vote to join the UAW. Here’s what’s at stake for workers across the country.

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Mercedes-Benz logo seen on a Mercedes-Benz vehicle in Edmonton, on October 26, 2023, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

(NEW YORK) – Thousands of Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama will vote on a union this week, marking a major test for the United Auto Workers just a month after a watershed victory in nearby Tennessee.

The UAW faces a tougher fight this time because Mercedes-Benz has waged an anti-union campaign in an effort to discourage workers and tilt the outcome, experts told ABC News.

A victory would have significant ramifications, doubling the union’s momentum as it tries to organize a slew of additional plants across the South, where auto workers have struggled to gain a foothold for decades, they said .

A loss, however, could scare workers at other sites and derail the union’s success.

Here’s what’s at stake for autoworkers and the broader labor movement:

Can the UAW keep its momentum and unite more automakers?

This week’s union vote involving about 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is the latest sign of momentum for the UAW since union members went on strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers last fall.

The high-profile standoff contributed to billions of dollars in losses for the companies and left thousands of workers temporarily unemployed. But the gamble paid off, helping the union achieve historic wage increases and other long-sought reforms.

The breakthrough sparked a wave of UAW organizing, the union says. More than 10,000 non-union autoworkers have signed cards in support of the UAW in recent months and campaigns have erupted at more than two dozen facilities, the union said in a statement in March.

Last month, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted by a crushing margin of 2,628 to 985 to join the UAW. The victory marked the first auto plant in the South to unite with one voice since the 1940s.

“To see Tennessee making history all the way to the South — it’s big,” Sammie Ellis, 35, an assembly worker for Mercedes-Benz at the Alabama plant who supports the union, told ABC News. “It sends a clear message.”

A union, Ellis said, would provide better health benefits and pay, as well as “general respect for employees.”

In addition to the Alabama plant, the UAW is aiming to unify 12 facilities in the South, Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University and author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble,” told ABC News.

“The question is whether the UAW will be able to maintain its momentum,” Silvia said.

Can unions win in major workplaces when faced with an anti-union campaign?

The union drive in Alabama poses several challenges compared to the UAW’s recent victory in Chattanooga, most notably the presence of an anti-union campaign, experts said.

The circumstances touch on a question that has emerged in the labor movement in recent years: Can unions win in large workplaces, such as Amazon warehouses or auto factories, when they face opposition from an employer?

In April 2022, warehouse workers at a 6,000-employee Amazon factory formed the first-ever U.S. union at the company, although no additional warehouses have been unionized since. On the other hand, Starbucks employees have managed to unite about 400 of the company’s stores, which vary in number but typically employ about 30 workers.

In Chattanooga, Volkswagen took a neutral stance toward the union, with no input on whether workers should organize. Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, has made a coordinated effort to dissuade employees from supporting the effort, Ellis said.

Facility officials have put up flyers, worn hats and handed out towels that all carry the same message: “Vote no,” Ellis said.

“They are heavily into no votes,” Ellis added.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, Mercedes-Benz said in a statement that it supports employees’ right to determine whether they want union representation.

“Mercedes-Benz US International (MBUSI) fully respects our team members’ choice to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure that every team member has the opportunity to express their own secret to cast a vote. access to the information needed to make an informed choice,” said a company spokesperson.

“We believe open and direct communication with our team members is the best path to ensuring continued success,” the spokesperson added.

When asked about the implications for unions seeking to organize large workplaces amid opposition from employers, Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s Worker Institute, said, “If they win, that will help move the needle.”

What message will the UAW send to the broader labor movement?

In recent years, the American labor movement has grown in popularity and made headlines with high-profile strikes, but it has failed to increase the share of the workforce that is unionized.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans approve of unions, a Gallup poll found last year, pushing union favorability to near its highest level since 1965.

Yet union membership has declined. Last year, only 10% of American workers belonged to a union. Little has changed from the year before, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure marks a sharp decline from a peak of almost 25% in the 1950s.

A victory at the Alabama plant could show that unions’ resurgent popularity and militancy can translate into membership growth, Harry Katz, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University, told ABC News.

“Maybe it suggests there’s more momentum for organizing than we’ve seen in the past,” Katz said.

Ellis, the Mercedes-Benz worker in Alabama, said he hopes a victory will show workers that unions help find a path to a decent living.

“These people will be able to join these manufacturers and gain skills that will provide good wages, great benefits and allow them to provide for themselves and their families,” Ellis said.

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