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Why this vote at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant is historic for the South

Some 4,300 hourly workers at this Volkswagen automobile assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., are voting this week on whether to join the United Auto Workers union.
Elijah Nouvelage
/
Getty Images
Some 4,300 hourly workers at this Volkswagen automobile assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., are voting this week on whether to join the United Auto Workers union.

Over the next three days, Volkswagen workers in Tennessee could change the trajectory of unions in the South. On Wednesday morning, hourly employees at the company's Chattanooga plant started casting ballots over whether they want to join the United Auto Workers union.

The vote, which closes at 8 p.m. Friday, is one of the most closely watched labor events this year. That's because of the significance of the Chattanooga plant itself, which the UAW had tried and failed to unionize twice over the past decade — a stark reminder of the union's waning power.

But today's UAW has a swagger that it lacked just a couple years ago. It is now emerging from fresh wins in the fall of last year, when the union led a historic strike against the Big Three automakers in Detroit and won big successes at the bargaining table: pay increases of at least 25% over the course of the four-year contract — with a doubling of pay for some newer workers and temps — plus cost-of-living adjustments.

With the wind at its back, the UAW launched a $40 million campaign to appeal to workers at nonunion auto factories, particularly those in the South. The Volkswagen plant is the first to hold an election, and a lot is riding on this vote.

A victory would build momentum as the UAW recruits workers it has long failed to win over, while a loss could cause the union drive to stall out.

The UAW needs a majority of yes ballots cast to declare victory. According to a federal labor filing, 4,300 production and maintenance workers are eligible to vote.

Assembly worker Victor Vaughn, who supports the vote, concedes Volkswagen is a "good" place to work. But he says employees need a forum for the company to address their issues. "That's what we're striving for — to make it a great place to work."

The only VW plant in the world without worker representation

The Chattanooga plant, which produces Volkswagen's Atlas SUV and the ID.4 electric SUV, is the only Volkswagen plant in the world without worker representation.

This week's union vote is the third one at this plant in a decade. UAW efforts to unionize the autoworkers in 2014 and 2019 ended in narrow defeats. A smaller group of about 150 skilled employees, including electricians and machinists, did vote to join the UAW in 2015, but legal battles over the micro unit caused that union attempt to fail too.

The past losses at this plant came after strong pushback from local politicians who warned that a union would have detrimental impacts on the local economy. This time, too, there are similar concerns. On a visit to Chattanooga last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, said workers would be risking their future if they vote to unionize.

"We've seen union decline in many places all across this country for the last decade. And we've seen plants close that made the decision to go union," he said. "So I hope that's not what happens here."

Southern governors warn of job losses

This latest push by UAW into the South has been a concern for state politicians across the region. They worry that a win at this plant could spread to other businesses and cost the region current and future jobs.

On Tuesday, Lee joined governors from Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama in a joint statement speaking out against the UAW's union drive.

"The reality is companies have a choice when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity," the statement said. "Unionization would certainly put our states' jobs in jeopardy — in fact, in this year already, all of the UAW automakers have announced layoffs."

The South did secure many high-paying jobs for residents as foreign auto makers moved in and set up shop. They came to the South because of both generous incentives — Volkswagen received $577 million in incentives from Tennessee for opening the Chattanooga plant in the state — and the allure of avoiding union stronghold states like Michigan.

Under Tennessee's right to work law, workers cannot be forced to join unions or pay dues as a condition of employment. In 2022, Tennessee voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment enshrining that law.

Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., twice voted against unionizing, in 2014 and 2019.
Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., twice voted against unionizing, in 2014 and 2019.

What workers hope the UAW will get them

Pro-union workers at the plant believe the UAW could help them negotiate better pay, benefits and more flexible time off. Workers there often use up their paid leave when the plant shuts down for a few weeks in the winter and summer for machine updates and some go without pay during that time, according to assembly worker Isaac Meadows. That leaves workers with little time left for sick days or their own planned vacations.

"The biggest thing is we just want a voice," Meadows said. "Volkswagen itself is a great company to work for. However, our local management, they don't do a real great job taking care of the people."

Volkswagen says it respects employees' right to choose

In an employee Q&A provided on its website, Volkswagen states: "We respect our employees' right to decide this important issue through a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests. ... We hope everyone will take the time to review the relevant facts before casting a vote."

In the same document, Volkswagen notes that even if the union prevails in the vote, workers are not obligated to become union members, though they will be represented by the UAW.

The carmaker has invested more than $4.3 billion in the plant since 2008. And in the last two years, Volkswagen has added 1,200 new jobs as it shifts to assembling the all-electric ID.4 SUV.

A win could "build momentum"

With organizing drives going on at auto plants all across the South, American University professor Stephen Silvia, author of The UAW's Southern Gamble, says the Volkswagen election could set a trajectory for what happens next.

"The UAW has been strongest in Chattanooga, and if they succeed there, then it will build momentum," he says. "If they don't succeed there, it will make it harder for the other places to organize."

Next up: the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., where workers have petitioned labor officials for a union election of their own and are awaiting a date.

Jeremy Kimbrell, a longtime Mercedes employee and union leader, says a Chattanooga victory would certainly give them a boost.

"It's going to help ease some of the fears ... of the newer workers or workers kind of in the middle," he says. "They'll be like, 'You know what, man — it's just time.'"

Copyright 2024 NPR

Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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