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UAW gets first win in South as Tennessee plant overwhelmingly backs union

Rows of completed cars are seen at a Volkswagen assembly plant on Friday in Chattanooga, Tenn.  (Elijah Nouvelage)
By Jeanne Whalen and Lauren Kaori Gurley Washington Post

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, passed a historic vote to join the United Auto Workers on Friday, making the auto factory the first in the South to vote to unionize since the 1940s.

Nearly three-quarters of 3,613 workers voted yes in a three-day election that drew high turnout, giving the union an impressive first win in its campaign to organize the factories of a dozen automakers in the South.

The vote marks the biggest organizing victory in years for the UAW and for the broader labor movement, which has long faced difficulty in Southern states. The UAW had twice previously failed to unionize the VW plant, in 2014 and 2019. VW Chattanooga will join a handful of other unionized auto factories in the South, where local laws and customs have made it hard for unions to make inroads.

The organizing effort caps off a strong year for the U.S. labor movement, which has won record wage increases in several industries through strikes and tough bargaining. The Teamsters scored big wins for UPS employees, while Hollywood actors and writers and Kaiser nurses secured better wages and working conditions by staging walkouts. The UAW has had a particularly strong year under its new president, Shawn Fain, winning large raises and other perks through an acrimonious strike against Detroit automakers last fall.

Both President Biden and former president Donald Trump have been courting union workers in the upcoming presidential election. The Chattanooga vote delivers a political victory for Biden, who won the UAW’s endorsement earlier this year and has supported union expansion efforts.

“Congratulations to the workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on their historic vote for union representation with the United Auto Workers,” Biden said in a statement late Friday night. “I was proud to stand alongside autoworkers in their successful fight for record contracts, and I am proud to stand with autoworkers now as they successfully organize at Volkswagen.”

Factory employees celebrated their overwhelming victory at a union hall in Chattanooga, setting off fireworks and erupting in cheers.

“I’m very proud of the work we did to get here,” Volkswagen worker Robert Soderstrom said by text message. “We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and I’m eager to get it started.”

Fain, who has revitalized the union since his election to the job about a year ago, joined workers at the hall and vowed to continue the momentum.

“We’re going to carry this fight on to Mercedes and everywhere else!” he said, referring to the next election on the union’s calendar, at Mercedes-Benz facilities in Alabama.

In a brief statement, Volkswagen thanked its workers for voting in the election. All of the company’s other factories worldwide are already represented by a union or a similar body that advocates for workers.

The victory came after a concerted campaign by local Volkswagen workers, assisted by UAW staff, who rallied workers to their cause by pledging that the union would help them fight for better health care and retirement benefits and more paid time off.

Fain told workers Friday that a tougher fight awaits them as they prepare to negotiate with Volkswagen for their first contract. Among their goals: more paid time off and better control over their schedules. Workers say they also want better health care and retirement benefits.

Hourly wages for production workers at the plant range from $23.40 to $32.40, according to Volkswagen. After their strike last year against the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Stellantis – UAW workers at those companies won raises that boosted wages for the highest-paid employees to more than $40 an hour.

Like Volkswagen, the UAW’s other new targets are mostly foreign-headquartered companies that manufacture in the South, including Honda, Toyota and Hyundai. Tesla factories in Texas, Nevada and California are also on the union’s list.

The UAW says a majority of workers at Mercedes-Benz manufacturing facilities in Vance and Woodstock, Ala., have already signed union authorization cards supporting membership in the UAW, which workers will put to a vote in mid-May.

Harry Katz, a professor and labor expert at Cornell University, called the Volkswagen vote and the 84% turnout particularly impressive, and potentially motivated by the big raises and other perks UAW workers won last year by striking against the Big Three.

“At the same time, it should be recognized that VW may prove to be a special case given that VW management did not aggressively seek to avoid unionization,” Katz added. Workers at the other factories on the UAW’s list “will likely face the kind of resistance that has made it difficult for unions to organize over the last 30 years in the auto sector and elsewhere in the private sector in the U.S.”

Another problem facing the UAW is that unionization at auto-parts suppliers in the United States has dropped to “extremely low levels,” he added. Parts suppliers not owned by the Big Three were 95% unionized in 1950 versus only about 5% today, Katz said.

Republican politicians in Tennessee had sought to thwart a yes vote by warning workers in public statements that unionization would threaten jobs and the region’s economic prosperity. Governors of six Southern states banded together to make a similar joint statement this week.

In his statement Friday, Biden criticized those governors for “falsely claiming that a successful vote would jeopardize jobs.”

“There is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose,” Biden said.

Since its founding in the 1930s, the UAW has had a strong presence at the Midwestern factories of the Big Three automakers. Its nationwide agreements with those companies have also allowed the union to expand into a handful of large factories in Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee.

But the union’s membership has dropped precipitously over the past few decades, leaving the UAW scrambling for new sources of growth.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions, called the Volkswagen vote “a historic milestone for workers across the state and the broader South.”

Local “right to work” laws in Southern states, as well as political and cultural traditions, have made it difficult for unions to expand. But some experts say workers’ attitudes are changing as younger people enter the workforce.

Petitions for union elections are up 35% in fiscal 2024 compared with the previous year, the NLRB announced earlier this month. And American support for unions has soared to 67%, after hitting a record low during the Great Recession, according to Gallup polling.

The labor movement still faces an uphill climb. Last year, only 10% of U.S. workers were in a union, a record low, in part due to the explosive growth of the nation’s workforce. Meanwhile, a wave of high-profile victories at previously nonunion companies, such as Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI, have yet to achieve first union contracts for workers.