Stanford’s Bill Gould on the UAW Vote in Alabama and the Future of Unions in the U.S.

On Friday, May 17, workers at Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama voted to reject UAW unionization. That union defeat came on the heels of a big UAW win in April, when workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee approved UAW unionization. Are American workers warming up to unions, with unions like the UAW offering better pay and benefits? Or does this defeat represent a shift in the other direction? Here, labor law expert Professor William B. Gould IV, former head of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), discusses the Mercedes-Benz vote and what he sees for the potential for a more active and a stronger union movement in the U.S.

Why do you think the UAW vote failed?

Stanford’s Bill Gould on the UAW Vote in Alabama and the Future of Unions in the U.S.

Alabama and much of the Deep South have been hostile to unions. A major difference between the successful Volkswagen campaign in Chattanooga and Mercedes is that Volkswagen was neutral and did not pursue the vigorous anti-union stance adopted by Mercedes. Unions are likely to flourish in most parts of the country if the employer is neutral. In both campaigns, Southern conservative Republican leaders attempted to influence the workers to oppose the UAW, arguing that the union would produce job losses, strikes, and that workers would have no control over their dues. A less visible tactic employed against organized labor in the South is racial divisiveness and polarization, which undermines the solidarity necessary for effective unions movement. (Few of the Black workers are influenced by the Republicans whom Blacks reject at the political ballot box).

Do you think the union will lobby for another vote again?

The union won’t give up. Even if the UAW doesn’t try to get these results reversed on the grounds that illegal company behavior made the exercise of employee free choice unlikely, another election can be held in 12 months and the campaign will be ongoing.

There was a big UAW win in April when workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee approved UAW unionization. Did that win have knock-on effects at other plants in the form of better pay and benefits? Does unionizing in one plant benefit the ones that are not unionized?

William B. Gould IV
Stanford Law Professor William Gould IV

The success of the UAW in the Big 3 negotiations produced pay raises for workers in the non-union auto firms. When it became clear that the UAW was serious about organizing the Mercedes workers, the company immediately eliminated the two-tier wage system—an objective obtained by the UAW in the ’23 Big 3 negotiations—which relegated new hires to substandard wages and produced acrimony and divisiveness in the workforce.

This is a pattern, i.e. the adoption of better pay and benefits, long followed by many firms so long as they feared future union organizing. This was practiced in the 1950s and 1960s but, when labor did less organizing, it fell into disuse. Workers in non-union firms are benefiting, though not as fully as their unionized counterparts.

Does the South have fewer union auto plants? If yes, why—and is that culture changing?

Yes—the South has fewer unionized firms and organized labor has had difficulties there.  The economy has been agriculturally dominated and union’s failed “Operation Dixie” campaign in the 1950s did not organize much of the South. The so called foreign “transplants,” like Toyota, BMW, Hyundai, and Nissan, urged by the UAW to invest here in the 1970s so as to diminish the cost advantage of lower wages and benefits abroad, moved into the South and rural Midwest and got closer to new markets here. They also avoided the UAW and obtained cheap labor here in the domestic market.

After declining, unions seem to be on the uptick, despite this latest no vote.  Do you see a real shift?

The culture may be changing gradually. When the UAW first tried to organize Mercedes a decade ago, they couldn’t get enough worker interest to have an election, let alone lose with 44 percent of the vote, as they did on Friday. Unions are gaining in popularity, though the jury is out on whether they will improve their current position of representation of 10 percent of the workforce.

You’ve been critical of unions in the U.S. for not doing and spending enough. Have you seen a shift in the UAW’s strategies?

The UAW has awakened organized labor from its deepening decades-long slumber by its aggressive bargaining stance and, most important, its willingness to spend its funds to organize and offer strike benefits. The UAW has recently adopted a stance arguably even more pioneering than the one adopted in the 1930s and 1940s, increasing its 2023 operational expenditures by 70 percent. According to union strategist Chris Bohner, it spent $438 million—more than any other large national union! Its new directly elected leadership set aside $40 million for organizing at the year’s beginning. It seems unlikely that defeats, like that experienced with Mercedes, will alter this strategy.

In 2023-2024 we have witnessed a union revival of sorts, with labor winning more than three quarters of NLRB elections. This is taking place in the teeth of an inadequate law, albeit one that has been properly patched up by the best NLRB since the Roosevelt-Truman era. But despite increased spending, we still have the problem that there aren’t enough elections. And that’s because the unions aren’t focusing on spending on organizing.

Notwithstanding the Mercedes defeat, the UAW is showing the way. The rest of the labor movement must go forward and do likewise.

William B. Gould IV is the Charles A. Beardsley Professor of Law, emeritus, at Stanford Law School. A prolific scholar of labor and discrimination law, Gould has been an influential voice in worker–management relations for more than fifty years and served as Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB, 1994–98) and subsequently Chairman of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (2014-2017). He has been a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators since 1970. As NLRB Chairman, he played a critical role in bringing the 1994–95 baseball strike to its conclusion and has arbitrated and mediated more than three hundred labor disputes, including the 1992 and 1993 salary disputes between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee. Shortly after the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he served as a consultant to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1966-67) providing recommendations on seniority disputes and conciliation procedures and in 1967 he was a member of the very first Fact Finding Board established under the New York Taylor Law. Gould also served as Special Advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on project labor agreements (2011–12) and as Independent Reviewer on Equal Employment Opportunity for the Mayor of San Francisco (2020-21). A critically acclaimed author of 11 books and more than sixty law review articles. His most recent book is For Labor to Build Upon: Wars, Depression and Pandemic (Cambridge University Press, Spring 2022)