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Montgomery Hyundai workers hold unionization forum with United Auto Workers

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Less than a week after Mercedes-Benz workers announced their efforts to organize with the United Auto Workers, employees at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama held a discussion panel Monday to discuss their own UAW union campaign, which workers claim has already garnered hundreds of employee signatures.

Held at the Mt. Zion Church in Montgomery, the discussion panel was organized in part by the UAW, which last year launched a national campaign to organize non-unionized automakers in southern, right-to-work states. That campaign came in the wake of the union’s 46-day strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, a strike that saw the elimination of two-tier wage systems and significant wage increases for UAW workers.

The event was held Monday to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, who was killed in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting striking sanitation workers.

“The same reason why he was in Memphis in 1968 is the same reason why we’re here in Montgomery right on MLK Day, talking about working conditions, wages (and) benefits, the same things they were talking about then,” said Devere Godfrey with UAW.

Hyundai workers participate in a union campaign discussion panel at Mt. Zion Church in Montgomery.

Hyundai workers in attendance spoke about what they considered to be shortcomings of the company, which they argued could be better addressed through unionizing. One such worker was Timothy Cripple, an engine shop machine operator who’s worked at the Hyundai plant for 19 years.

“We don’t have a voice, so that’s why we need to step up and stand together, because if we don’t, companies like Hyundai and other big businesses are just going to keep running over us, we’re going to get the bare minimum while their pockets are getting full,” Cripple told Alabama Daily News. 

“They brag about billion-dollar this, billion-dollar that, but when it comes time for us to stand in a line and ask, we get nothing but excuses. We know the company is making money hand over fist.”

Another Hyundai worker who participated in the panel was Gilbert Brooks, who said roughly 200 more signatures were needed for the union campaign to hit the 30% threshold that once verified by the National Labor Relations Board, would kick off a union election at the facility.

Brooks’ largest grievance with the company was the lack of retirement packages, something every other worker that participated in the panel echoed as well.

“A 401k is the only thing; after we leave, no insurance, we’re thrown to the wolves,” Brooks told ADN. 

“It’s a big issue, especially with the old heads at Hyundai because we are looking forward to nothing after we leave. Since I’ve been there, I’ve had two neck surgeries and a rotator cuff surgery. It’s a wear and tear on your body.”

Scott Posey, a spokesperson for Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, told ADN Tuesday that while the decision to unionize or not was ultimately up to the workers, the plant’s 18-year history without a union had benefitted from “direct engagement and communications with management,” rather than with a unionized workforce.

“HMMA’s stance has been and continues to be that since 2005, nearly 4,000 hard-working women and men have been building high-quality Hyundai vehicles at HMMA,” Posey said.

“HMMA is thriving because of the strong team-oriented atmosphere we’ve cultivated and the pride we share in building safe, high-quality vehicles for the North American market. While the decision to be represented by a union is one our team members can make, during our 18-year manufacturing history in the U.S. here in Alabama, our teams have preferred and benefited from direct engagement and communications with management.”

The Hyundai plant in Montgomery employs approximately 3,800 people.

Hyundai is one of several auto manufacturers that located in Alabama partly because of right-to-work laws and the lack of labor unions in the industry. That hasn’t stopped UAW and other national unions from trying to penetrate the industry’s labor force over the years.

Starting in 2020, the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU) spent two years attempting to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, only to come up short in multiple votes by workers there.

After the union campaign at the Mercedes-Benz Plant in Tuscaloosa went public last week, Gov. Kay Ivey came out strongly against the effort, calling the UAW an “out-of-state special interest group” that was placing Alabama’s model for economic success “under attack,” and “telling Alabama how to do business.”

In response to Ivey’s comments, Dewayne Naylor, who’s worked quality control in Hyundai’s body shop for 14 years, pushed back on the idea of UAW exerting control on its members.

“We’ve been doing our job for all these years, so (the UAW) is not really telling us how to do a job, they’re just telling us how to get more out of our jobs and out of the company to help us for a better life,” he said.

While just a few hundred signatures short of the threshold needed to move forward, workers say Hyundai leadership have strongly opposed the union campaign, and have ramped up efforts to deter workers from signing union authorization cards in recent months.

“They play anti-union videos that really press not signing the cards, but in the same vein, when the UAW supplied me with teaching material to hand out to the team members, my group leader comes in and collects them,” Cripple told ADN. 

“I knew he was not right for doing it because it was in a break room in a non-production area.”

Also attending the event was Dev Wakeley of Alabama Arise, a progressive advocacy organization. He said the group, which recently unionized itself, is fully behind the Hyundai union campaign.

“The best way to lessen and eliminate poverty is unionizing workers, and that’s why Alabama Arise supports UAW in the statewide organizing campaign, and particularly at Hyundai,” Wakeley said.

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