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Tennessee VW workers hold key unionization vote

Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. will be the first to vote in the United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign to organize Southern plants
Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. will be the first to vote in the United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign to organize Southern plants - Copyright GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File Elijah Nouvelage
Volkswagen's assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. will be the first to vote in the United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign to organize Southern plants - Copyright GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File Elijah Nouvelage
John BIERS

Volkswagen employees in Tennessee will begin casting ballots Wednesday in a vote that could make theirs the first foreign carmaker to unionize in the American South, expanding gains made by organized labor in the auto heartland of Detroit.

Hopes were high among supporters of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Chattanooga, Tennessee on the eve of the three-day vote, as the revived labor organization takes on its first target after last fall’s triumphant strike of Detroit’s “Big Three.”

“We’re really excited,” assembly worker Isaac Meadows said as he headed to the plant to hand out flyers ahead of his 2:00 pm shift.

The American South has historically been a dead zone for union drives in the auto industry, including at the 5,500-employee Chattanooga factory, where workers have twice previously voted down UAW representation.

But labor experts say the UAW could be poised for a historic win under the leadership of President Shawn Fain, with workers attracted by the success of the Detroit strikes. 

“The time is right,” Meadows told AFP in a phone interview. “Pay hasn’t kept up with inflation. People are realizing as labor, we have a lot of power.”

Fain, who was elected president in March 2023 in the wake of a corruption scandal in the 89-year-old union, engineered the first-ever simultaneous strike of Ford, General Motors and Stellantis last fall.

After a nearly six-week stoppage, the UAW won wage hikes of about 25 percent, among other long-sought gains.

The UAW also won support from Democratic President Joe Biden, who joined a picket line and invited Fain to this year’s State of the Union address.

Propelled by that momentum, the UAW unveiled an ambitious organizing campaign last November aimed at 13 companies with nearly 150,000 workers, including new players such as Tesla and Lucid.

The bulk of the targeted facilities are situated across the American South, where foreign automakers such as Toyota, Honda and BMW have set up shop.

The UAW has petitioned for a vote at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama, but federal officials have yet to schedule the election.

– Company stays neutral –

Although the UAW has long targeted the South, it has been consistently rejected in prior elections where critics have depicted the union as an interloper that risks job loss and factory closures.

These include Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who has spoken out against the current drive, releasing a joint letter with five other Republican governors denouncing the UAW campaign.

“Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy,” said the letter, also signed by the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.

“In America, we respect our workforce and we do not need to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch,” the letter said.

Despite the opposition of Lee and other Tennessee politicians to the VW campaign, the German automaker has itself struck a tone of neutrality — an unusual position in the United States where companies like Amazon and Starbucks have vocally fought labor drives.

“We respect our workers’ right to decide the question of union representation,” Volkswagen says on its website.

That statement reflects input from the Volkswagen Works Council in Germany, which demanded that the company immediately take down earlier anti-union language, said a spokesman of the employee representative group.

The Works Council also released a rousing video featuring President Daniela Cavallo and cheering Wolfsburg colleagues, expressing solidarity from Germany and promising to keep their “fingers crossed” for a victory.

The UAW has also adjusted tactics in the current push, deferring more to local movements instead of employing a top-down approach, said American University Stephen Silvia, author of The UAW’s Southern Gamble.

Chattanooga is “the best chance the UAW has ever had in organizing a plant in the South,” Silvia said in an interview. A UAW win would be “huge,” giving the UAW momentum for its other campaigns, he said.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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