Volkswagen union vote in Tennessee to test UAW's power after victories in Detroit

A Volkswagen automobile assembly plant is seen on March 20, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images

DETROIT — Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will vote this week on whether to organize with the United Auto Workers in a key test of the union’s sway.

A victory would give the UAW its first major automaker win outside General Motors, Ford Motor, and Chrysler parent Stellantis. It would also offer a launching point for the union’s unprecedented organizing campaign of 13 automakers in the U.S. following major contract wins in 2023 with the Detroit companies.

A loss would mark the Detroit-based union’s latest organizing failure following decades of unsuccessful drives outside the Big Three, including at the Tennessee VW plant in 2014 and 2019. It also would be a major setback for the UAW and President Shawn Fain, who was elected in 2023 as a reform candidate following a yearslong federal corruption scandal involving former union leaders.

More than 4,000 VW workers are eligible to vote, beginning Wednesday and ending at 8 p.m. EDT on Friday. The organizing vote, which is being overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, will need a simple majority to succeed.

Fain and others see this week’s vote as the union’s best shot at organizing the VW plant following the record contracts and strikes at the Detroit automakers, which launched Fain to international prominence as the face of the union last year.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain during an online broadcast updating union members on negotiations with the Detroit automakers on Oct. 6, 2023.

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The UAW’s record contracts with the three major Detroit automakers is the biggest difference between the current union drive and previous efforts at Volkswagen, said Stephen Silvia, author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants.”

“This is by far the best chance for the UAW out of all its drives at Chattanooga,” he said.

Silvia, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said the political circumstances, company messaging, and Fain’s leadership all created a more favorable environment for the union than it had during previous organizing drives.

Volkswagen, which has union workers at non-U.S. plants, has said it will let its workers determine whether to organize. The company said it has only acted to clarify information it felt was misleading or incorrect related to issues such as wages and benefits, but it has not publicly opposed union organizing. It also launched a campaign called “Vote for the workplace you want,” encouraging all employees to do so.

“We respect our workers’ right to a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests,” VW said in a statement. “We fully support an NLRB vote so every team member has a chance to a secret ballot vote on this important decision. Volkswagen is proud of our working environment in Chattanooga that provides some of the best paying jobs in the area.”

An aerial view of the Chattanooga Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 10, 2024. 

Kevin Wurm | The Washington Post | Getty Images

In addition to less political pressure in the right-to-work state, there are also fewer organized efforts against the union than during prior drives. One group called “VW Chatt workers, for VW Chatt workers” in recent weeks started opposing UAW organizing, including a “Still No UAW” website.

A member of the group who asked not to be identified due to repercussions if UAW organizing is successful said he fears the union could cause problems at the plant, including the possibility of layoffs as if workers win more benefits during negotiations.

The assembly employee, who has more than 10 years at the plant, said it’s not guaranteed that the German automaker will agree to the same wages and benefits as GM, Ford and Stellantis.

“The Big Three, they got a decent contract … but we’re not the Big Three,” said the veteran worker. “They’re bigger companies [in the U.S.] and when contracts come into play with negotiations, it’s not going to be the same.”

He said this UAW organizing drive feels different than the past two because there is less outside political pressure, the union has new leadership and organizing tactics and more new workers are supporting the union at the plant.

VW workers filed for the election in March after a supermajority of them signed union cards, according to the UAW. The VW workers reached a majority in early February — two months after launching their public campaign to join the UAW.

Unlike prior organizing efforts, the union is using a grassroots, or bottom-up, drive led by workers at the plant rather than leaders at the international union. The strategy has helped messaging, Silvia said.

In 2019, VW workers at the Chattanooga plant rejected union representation in an 833-776 vote.

“Right now, we just need a voice in the plant. Right now, we’re subject to the whims of the company,” said Isaac Meadows, an assembly worker who has been at the VW plant for 14 months. “There are a lot of issues that we want to have a say in, and by coming together to form our union, it puts us in a position to bargain all that stuff.”

Meadows said he makes $27 an hour and that his top priorities are pay, benefits and additional time off.

VW production workers at the plant earn between $23.40 per hour and $32.40 per hour, with a four-year ramp up to top wages, according to the company.

UAW signs and water bottles are shown inside the I.B.E.W. building in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 10, 2024. 

Kevin Wurm | The Washington Post | Getty Images

UAW-negotiated wages this year for the Detroit carmakers range between about $25 an hour and $36 an hour for production workers, including estimated cost-of-living adjustments. By the end of the UAW contracts in 2028, top wages are expected to surpass $42 an hour for production workers.

“The guy building the Ford Explorer, he’s worth about double to Ford as to what we are to Volkswagen,” said Meadows. He added that “everybody was watching” the outcome of the UAW’s talks with the Detroit automakers.

The UAW has used the new wages and other benefits as rallying calls for non-organized auto workers to join the union.

VW is one of 13 non-union automakers in the U.S. that the UAW set its sights on late last year after securing record contracts with the Detroit automakers. The drive covers nearly 150,000 autoworkers across BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Factory workers at Mercedes Benz’s assembly plant in Alabama earlier this month filed NLRB paperwork for a formal election to join the UAW.

“The first thing you need to do to win is to believe that you can win,” Fain told Mercedes-Benz workers last month. “That this job can be better. That your life can be better. And that those things are worth fighting for. That is why we stand up. That’s why you’re here today. Because deep down, you believe it’s possible.”

Fain previously vowed to move beyond the Big Three and expand to the “Big Five or Big Six” by the time its 4½-year contracts with the Detroit automakers expire.

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2024/04/16/vw-workers-to-vote-on-joining-uaw-union-in-tennessee.html

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