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Volkswagen workers vote for union in Tennessee — a major win for organized labor

Volkswagen workers in Tennessee vote to join UAW
Volkswagen workers in Tennessee vote to join UAW 06:31

Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers, becoming the first Southern autoworkers outside of the Big Three to do so in a region long resistant to unionization.

Almost three-quarters of 3,613 workers voted for UAW representation in the three-day election, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed late Friday, after announcements by the union and Volkswagen.

The outcome is huge win for the UAW, which had twice previously failed to unionize the Chattanooga facility and which has for decades faced an uphill climb organizing workers in Southern states. The vote also gives the UAW added momentum in its campaign to unionize a dozen, mostly foreign automakers in the South. The initiative follows a historic six-week strike last fall against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis that led to major wage gains.

"The real fight begins now. The real fight is getting your fair share, the real fight is the fight to get more time with your family, the real fight is to fight for our union contract," UAW President Shawn Fain told VW workers celebrating their victory at a union hall in Chattanooga. 

With the victory, the Volkswagen factory becomes the only unionized foreign commercial carmaker in the U.S. It's also the first auto plant to join the UAW since its action targeting the Big Three automakers in Detroit. 

"This election is big," VW worker Kelcey Smith said in a statement distributed by the UAW. "People in high places told us good things can't happen here in Chattanooga. They told us this isn't the time to stand up, this isn't the place. But we did stand up and we won. This is the time, this is the place. Southern workers are ready to stand up and win a better life."

The UAW declared victory as votes continued to be tallied, with the NLRB confirming 2,628 for and 985 opposed, or 73% to 27%. The ballot required a simple majority to pass. The results will be certified if no objections are filed within five days.

VW thanked its workers for voting in the "democratic election," the company said in a brief statement.

"Congratulations to the workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on their historic vote for union representation with the United Auto Workers," President Biden said in a statement late Friday. 

"Pivotal moment"

Despite the obstacles to organizing labor in the South, "The UAW showed last night we need to go and rethink all those negative statements that we've been telling workers that it can't be done," Sharon Block, professor and executive director the Center for Labor and a Just Economy, Harvard University Law School, said on Saturday in a call organized by the Economic Speakers Bureau. 

"Companies like VW have a long legacy of going to the South to chase those lower wages. I've interviewed workers who thought it was illegal to unionize in the South," said Alex Hertel-Fernandez, associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.

"This is a pivotal moment for the workers in Chattanooga, but much more broadly for workers in the South and for organized labor more generally," Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

The chances for a UAW win were seen as high, given that about 70% of the plant's workers pledged to vote in favor of unionization before it requested the vote, according to the union. Voting that began on Wednesday concluded Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

"We are going to win this, with the support we've gotten over the past week from our co-workers, from people who were on the fence," Victor Vaughn, an employee at the plant for nearly two years and a member of the organizing committee, said before the ballots were counted. "We are very intelligent, hard workers, family-oriented and we care about our jobs. That is what we're doing throughout the South." 

Volkswagen Workers At Chattanooga Hold Unionization Vote
People celebrate while watching the vote tally at a United Auto Workers (UAW) vote watch party on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Job safety and health care costs are two of the primary issues that workers at the plant hope to address, Vaughn added. At the time VW proposed an 11% wage increase late last year, workers were unaware the company planned to hike health insurance premiums 15%, Vaughn said.

"That was a shock to a lot of us," he said. 

"If they can't organize at Volkswagen, you'd have to question their ability to organize at any of these Southern auto plants," John Logan, chair of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

A regional foothold?

The UAW for decades has unsuccessfully attempted to organize at auto factories in the South, making progress only at a few heavy truck and bus plants in the region. The vote is the UAW's third try at the plant, where workers narrowly spurned union membership in both 2014 and 2019. The UAW was also defeated in a 2017 vote at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

The UAW win gives the union a key foothold in the region, where organizing usually means fighting not only the company but the entire community, including the political and business establishment, Logan said.

"When we secure our contract with the UAW, I think it is going to open the door for so many other plants, Mercedes-Benz included," said Vaughn, referencing an upcoming election next month by autoworkers at Mercedes plant in Vance and Woodstock, Alabama.

Earlier in the week, the governors of six states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — decried the unionization effort, saying it jeopardized jobs

"Interest in the UAW has been fueled by spectacular gains in the Detroit Three contract talks last year. Almost all 13 of the non-union automakers have boosted wages to diminish interest in organizing and these gains are widely referred to as the 'UAW bump,' Shaiken said. "Paradoxically, automakers are confirming the UAW does deliver."

In the case of Germany's Volkswagen, which has unionized workers around the globe, the opposition to the UAW's efforts has been less fierce than those seen with other corporate entities, Logan noted. 

In fact, the Chattanooga plant is Volkswagen's sole facility of about 120 globally that does not have some form of employee representation. 

Fain thanked a VW German works council — an elected group of employees who collaborate with a company's management on behalf of workers — for going to bat for the UAW in its campaign in Chattanooga. 

"That's what a global movement looks like, these companies are global, they take us on globally, and we have to stand together and fight back globally, and that's what we are doing now," he said.

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