Critical Ballot: United Auto Workers Union Vote at VW’s Tennessee Plant

Critical Ballot: United Auto Workers Union Vote at VW's Tennessee Plant

Volkswagen’s lone US plant on the southern border of Tennessee has become a battleground over worker representation as the United Auto Workers union seeks to expand its foothold beyond Detroit. Workers at the German carmaker’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant — where VW assembled its ID.4 electric SUV — are set to vote on whether to join the UAW beginning on Wednesday. The 4,3000 eligible workers can cast their ballots until late Friday. This week’s vote is the UAW’s third attempt at organizing VW’s Tennessee factory — its only nonunion plant globally. The UAW, which has been shrinking, sees the VW vote as the first of a series that would spread unions beyond Detroit-owned automakers and into the US South, which has been unfriendly terrain for organized labor.

This is the best chance they’ve ever had,” Cornell University labor professor Art Wheaton said of the UAW. The 89-year-old labor union — one of the largest in the US with more than 391,000 active members — also has yet to unionize any foreign-owned auto-manufacturing plants on American soil. The environment has never been better for the UAW, which gained public support last year when President Biden joined the picket lines in Detroit, where the union secured record contracts with the Big Three automakers: General Motors, Ford Motor, and Jeep maker Stellantis. Should the UAW finally nab a win at VW’s Tennessee plant, it would reverse decades of striking out at southern auto plants. In addition to two narrow losses at VW previously, it sustained three more significant misses at southern factories owned by Nissan.

However, many nonunion automakers, including VW, offered raises after the Big Three talks, which many analysts saw as a move to keep their plants union-free. Union-backing workers at the VW plant hope this time to win, and say they want better pay and benefits and improved plant safety. The victory is also critical to the UAW’s future as the union continues to shrink — from a high of 1.5 million members in the 1970s to roughly 370,000 last year, its lowest level since 2009. Current organizing efforts are targeting 150,000 nonunion workers, which would double the UAW’s size. Kelcey Smith, who joined a union organizing committee after being hired about a year ago, said the union’s deals following a six-week strike against the Detroit automakers inspired him. Smith wants some of those perks himself.

It showed not only me, but the rest of the country and the world, that if you just come together as a collective group, you can bring change for yourself and your families,” he said. But some employees at the plant say the risks of organizing outweigh the potential rewards, worrying that increased labor costs for VW could endanger job security. Anti-UAW organizations have also made their voices heard, with billboards near the Chattanooga plant urging passersby to visit a Web page that spotlights a union bribery scandal that resulted in federal convictions of several former UAW leaders. The current UAW leadership was elected after that issue was resolved with federal officials.

The opposition will test UAW President Shawn Fain as he embarks on an ambitious organizing drive across the South and West. Fain and his team have committed $40 million through 2026 to organize more than a dozen nonunion shops owned by EV makers like Tesla, and foreign automakers including Toyota Motor. Fain has rejected descriptions of nonunion automakers as the enemy, portraying those workers instead as future UAW members.

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