Apr 19, 2024 - Business

UAW on the cusp of historic victory at Volkswagen plant in Tennessee

A car drives down a quiet street with a Volkswagon plant in the distance behind a row of trees.

The Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee — seen here on Friday — employs about 5,500 people, including 4,300 eligible to vote to join the UAW. Photo: Nathan Bomey | Axios

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—Union insiders and outside observers predict the United Auto Workers union will secure a historic victory Friday night at the sprawling Volkswagen plant here.

Why it matters: Volkswagen Chattanooga workers are finishing three days of voting on whether to become the only non-Detroit Three automotive assembly plant in the U.S. to be unionized.

The big picture: The UAW lost two previous votes to organize the factory in 2014 and 2019, but it appears to be on the precipice of a win on its third attempt.

  • "This time does feel different on many dimensions," Harvard Law School professor and Center for Labor executive director Sharon Block tells Axios. "The campaign has been very different, the leadership of the UAW has been very different and the pushback has seemingly been very different."
  • Columbia University public affairs professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez agrees, saying the clearest difference is that the UAW is coming off a recent win.

State of play: The UAW's campaign to organize the nation's 13 non-unionized automakers comes just months after having won record contracts from General Motors, Ford and Stellantis following an unprecedented strike.

  • The Chattanooga vote is wrapping up, with UAW advisers Chris Brooks and Ben Dictor predicting a win.
  • Of the 5,500 workers at the plant — which makes the ID.4 EV, the VW Atlas and the Atlas Cross Sport — about 4,300 are eligible to cast ballots.

Behind the scenes: At a VW Chattanooga employee parking lot Friday, some workers displayed signs supporting the vote: "UNION YES," one said. "UNION YES! A BETTER VW, A BETTER CHATTANOOGA," another said.

  • One VW worker, who gave his name as Marcus, estimated that about 60% of employees favor joining the UAW.
  • "A lot of people want it. A lot of people [are] scared of it. I'm like in the middle," he told Axios Friday during a shift change. "You've always got to do your research."

Volkswagen officials have stayed relatively quiet during the campaign, saying that they support the workers' right to vote.

Intensifying pressure

Republican rhetoric against the UAW has become less vehement than in the past, when leaders like then-Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee vigorously opposed the UAW campaign at VW.

  • In 2023, Republicans like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio visited UAW picket lines to offer their support for workers on strike against the Detroit Three.

Yes, but: In recent days, opposition among Southern Republicans has intensified.

Beyond Chattanooga, The UAW has secured a vote to organize the Mercedes-Benz factory in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.

  • And it is making progress in its bid to organize other facilities, including Tesla, Hyundai and Toyota sites.

What they're saying: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee — along with the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — issued a statement on Tuesday bashing the UAW campaign to organize plants in their states.

  • The effort is "driven by misinformation and scare tactics," and "we do not need to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch," the governors said.

What to watch: The National Labor Relations Board will tabulate ballots from Volkswagen Chattanooga workers after voting ends at 8pm ET Friday.

  • The NLRB expects to announce the results after a few hours.
  • If the union wins and neither side challenges the results within five business days, the results will be certified and the two sides can begin bargaining for a contract.

The bottom line: The UAW needs a simple majority of those who vote to prevail.

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