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UAW wins big at Volkswagen in Tennessee – its first victory at a foreign-owned factory in the American South

April 23, 2024
By Bob Bussel, University of Oregon

A decisive majority of the Volkswagen workers employed at a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee cast their ballots in favor of joining the United Auto Workers union, the German automaker announced on April 19, 2024.

Persuading any Southern autoworkers to join a union had long been one of the U.S. labor movement’s most enduring challenges, despite persistent efforts by the UAW to organize this workforce.

To be sure, the UAW already has members employed by Ford and General Motors at facilities in Kentucky, Texas, Missouri and Mississippi.

However, the union had previously tried and largely failed to organize workers at foreign-owned companies, including Volkswagen and Nissan, in Southern states – where about 30% of all U.S. automotive jobs are located. It was the UAW’s third election at the same factory since 2014. The prior two ended in narrow losses.

The victory follows the UAW’s most successful strike in a generation against Detroit’s Big Three automakers, through which it won higher pay and better benefits for its members in 2023.

Volkswagen said it will await certification of the results by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. workers’ rights to organize. As long as neither side challenges the results within five business days, the NLRB will certify them – greenlighting the start of bargaining over a contract.

The union has already scheduled another election that will occur less than a month after the Volkswagen vote. More than 5,000 workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, will have their say on whether to join the UAW in a vote that will run May 13-17, 2024.

$40 million campaign

The UAW has pledged to spend US$40 million through 2026 to expand its ranks to include more auto and electric battery workers, including many employed in the South, where the industry is quickly gaining ground.

Based on my five decades of experience as a union organizer and labor historian, I anticipate that, recent momentum aside, the UAW will face resistance from the other foreign automakers that operate in the South. The pushback is also coming from Southern politicians, many of whom have expressed concern that UAW success would undermine the region’s carefully crafted approach to economic development.

But the outcome of this first election among Volkswagen’s more than 4,300 workers in Tennessee who were eligible to vote represents an impressive first step in the union’s ambitious campaign to organize foreign-owned automakers in the South and other nonunion factories across the country. With about 73% of the workers who voted choosing to say “yes,” according to the company and additional sources, I believe that this historic victory will boost UAW organizing in the South and will likely inspire other workers seeking to unionize their workplaces.

Lauding the ‘perfect three-legged stool’

After the region’s formerly robust textile industry imploded in the 1980s and 1990s because of an influx of cheap imports, Southern business and political leaders revived the region’s manufacturing base by successfully recruiting foreign automakers.

The strategy of those leaders reflects what the Business Council of Alabama has described as the “perfect three-legged stool for economic development.” It consists of “an eager and trainable workforce with a work ethic unparalleled anywhere in the nation,” accompanied by a “low-cost and business-friendly economic climate, and the lack of labor union activity and participation.”

The prospect of a low-wage and reliable workforce has lured the likes of Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Honda, Volkswagen and Hyundai to the South in recent decades.

Although many of those companies negotiate constructively with unions on their home turf, the lack of union membership and the protections that go with it have proved a draw for them in the United States.

Blaming unions for bad job prospects

One way automotive employers in the South have blocked unions is by portraying them as outdated institutions whose bloated contracts and rigid work rules destroy jobs by making domestic auto companies uncompetitive.

Automotive executives in the South argue the region has developed an alternative labor relations model that provides management with flexibility, offers wages and benefits superior to what local workers have earned previously and frees employees from any subordination to union directives.

Automakers with plants in the South also draw on another powerful resource in resisting the UAW: public intervention by top elected officials.

Making dire warnings

With the UAW ramping up its organizing efforts again, Southern governors are sounding alarms once more.

On the eve of the Volkswagen election in Chattanooga, six of these governors issued a joint statement denouncing the UAW as a “special interest” that would “threaten our jobs and the values we live by.” They asserted that a vote for the UAW would undermine their ability to attract auto manufacturers and “stop growth in its tracks.”

The UAW counters that union membership means workers will get predictable raises, better benefits and improved workplace policies.

Although these arguments from anti-union politicians haven’t changed much over the years, the context certainly has.

The UAW’s big wins on pay and benefits resulting from its 2023 strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis have increased its clout and credibility.

Many automakers with a U.S. workforce not covered by the UAW – including Volkswagen, Honda, Hyundai and other foreign transplants – responded by raising pay at their Southern plants. The union justifiably describes those raises as a “UAW bump.”

The UAW is citing these pay hikes in its outreach to workers at Tesla and other nonunion companies.

“Nonunion autoworkers are being left behind,” the UAW’s recruiting website warns. “Are you ready to stand up and win your fair share?”

The pitch continues: “It’s time for nonunion autoworkers to join the UAW and win economic justice at Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Tesla, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda, Rivian, Lucid, Volvo and beyond.”

Some Southern autoworkers, meanwhile, have been expressing concerns over scheduling, safety, two-tier wage systems and workloads that they believe a union could help resolve.

It’s also clear they’ve been emboldened by the gains they have seen UAW members make.

Revving up

The UAW’s campaign is just starting to rev up. And the timing is ideal.

A 2023 National Labor Relations Board ruling provides unions with additional leverage in this process. If management refuses to grant the union’s request for recognition, the employer would then be required to seek an NLRB representation election.

To win, unions normally need a majority of those voting. But in accordance with the new ruling, if management is found to have interfered with workers’ rights during the election process, it could then be required to bargain with the union.

The UAW says it’s waging organizing campaigns at more than two dozen other nonunion plants, including factories run by Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, and Toyota in Troy, Missouri.

I believe that the stakes are high for all workers, not just those in the auto industry.

As D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, a union that represents workers in a wide range of occupations, recently observed: “If you change the South, you change America.”

This is an updated version of an article published on March 8, 2024.The Conversation

Bob Bussel, Professor Emeritus of History and Labor Education, University of Oregon. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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