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REFILE-After VW plant victory, UAW sets its sights on Mercedes in Alabama

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By Nora Eckert

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee, April 20 (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers has made history by winning its first unionization vote at an auto factory in the U.S. South. Now it needs to prove the success wasn't a fluke by pulling off a second victory at a Mercedes plant in Alabama next month.

UAW representatives at the VW plant also will have to show their mettle by negotiating a contract that gives workers what they have fought for - better benefits, improved safety on the job and a greater work-life balance.

The Volkswagen landslide win in Tennessee is expected to provide crucial momentum to UAW President Shawn Fain's $40 million campaign to expand the union outside Detroit to the U.S. South and West, focusing on 13 non-union auto companies, including Toyota and Tesla.

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Fain, a scrappy leader who reveled in last year's fight with Detroit companies that won double-digit raises and cost-of-living adjustments, told a party of VW workers that the union would carry the fight on to Mercedes. "Let's win more for the working class all over this nation," he said.

The Mercedes plant vote, scheduled for mid-May, is expected to be a tougher fight than at VW, which took a neutral position in the vote.

Mercedes has said it respects workers' right to organize and wants them to make an informed decision. But in a letter to employees in January, it said that the union organizers "cannot guarantee you anything" and that some workers had said no to unionization because of Mercedes' competitive pay and benefits.

"Mercedes is running a much more aggressive anti-union campaign than Volkswagen within the plant," said John Logan, labor professor at San Francisco State University.

But he added that the large VW victory that saw 73% of eligible workers vote in favor will provide significant momentum for organizing efforts at other plants in the South.

"This will give them a huge boost for the Mercedes vote, and if they win that one, too, I wouldn't be surprised to see elections at Hyundai, Honda and Toyota over the next several months," he said.

The UAW says a "supermajority" of the roughly 5,200 eligible workers at the Mercedes assembly plant in Vance, Alabama, and a nearby battery plant in Woodstock support it. UAW policy is to push for a vote once 70% of workers have signed union cards.

Much may depend on economics and perceptions about job security. In the traditionally anti-union South where the UAW has lost several fights in the past, six Republican governors have flatly opposed the union's current campaign, describing it as risking job security since automakers face higher labor costs.

Prior to last autumn's UAW labor talks with the Detroit Three automakers, Ford officials said their U.S. labor costs were $64 an hour, compared with an estimated $55 for foreign automakers and $45-$50 for electric vehicle leader Tesla.

Workers at two other plants in the U.S. South - a Hyundai plant in Alabama and a Toyota parts factory in Missouri - have also launched organizing campaigns, with 30% of employees signing cards saying they support the UAW.

Workers at the VW plant say they will kick off meetings on Sunday to strategize on contract negotiations.

"The real fight is getting your fair share," Fain told VW workers Friday night.

VW worker Jeremy Bowman, who hopes to be on the plant's organizing committee, agreed. "The fight is just starting," he said. (Reporting by Nora Eckert; Editing by Peter Henderson and Edwina Gibbs)