Apr 20, 2024 - Business

UAW presses deeper into the South with victory at Volkswagen

 People celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

People celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Union supporters have renewed hopes of organizing in the South after the United Auto Workers scored a breakthrough victory Friday night.

Why it matters: The South has historically been a no-go zone for unions at major private companies due to political, legal, cultural and business opposition.

Between the lines: UAW president Shawn Fain said the status quo is changing after Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted 73% against 27% to become the only non-Detroit Three automotive assembly plant in the U.S. to be unionized.

  • "Many of the talking heads and the pundits have said to me repeatedly ... you can't win in the South," Fain said to a boisterous crowd of supporters at a victory party Friday night. "But you all said, 'Watch this!"
  • "A domino just fell, baby," someone in the crowd yelled.
  • Fain smiled. "You guys are leading the way, and we're going to carry this fight on to Mercedes and everywhere else," he said.
Workers hold up yellow signs supporting union rights
UAW supporters celebrate their victory in a campaign to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Friday night. Photo: Nathan Bomey/Axios

The big picture: The victory came after the UAW's two previous attempts to organize the VW factory in 2014 and 2019 failed by a narrow margin.

  • But public support for unions recently hit a near-six-decade high, and the UAW is riding high after winning record contracts from General Motors, Ford and Stellantis following an unprecedented strike in the fall.
  • "The UAW"s really showing — building off the momentum from their strike and the wins against the Big Three — that they're serious about organizing the non-union South," Columbia University public affairs professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez tells Axios.
  • Workers in the South "realize when they're being taken advantage of," Victor Vaughn, who helped organize his fellow VW Chattanooga workers, tells Axios. "We're going to prove that moving forward — and we're going to help our sisters and brothers at the other plants realize what their net worth truly is."

The intrigue: After becoming president of the UAW in early 2023, Fain set a new tone in his communications, often speaking of the union as a "family" and using Christian rhetoric that often resonates in the South.

  • At Friday night's victory party, he quoted the Bible to rapturous applause: "As Matthew 17:20 states, and I quote this: 'Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it will move."
  • "You already moved one mountain," he added, "and now we're gonna move another one."

The next mountain is the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, where the UAW has secured a vote from May 13-17 after a majority of workers at the plant signed unionization cards.

  • The win in Tennessee "projects strength to the Mercedes workers that they're not in this alone — that there's a strong foundation the UAW is building in the South," Harvard Law School professor and Center for Labor executive director Sharon Block tells Axios.
A man in a red polo shirt speaks to supporters while a woman holds a blue UAW flag
Flanked by supporters, UAW president Shawn Fain speaks to a celebratory crowd at a victory party Friday night in Chattanoga, Tennessee, where Volkswagen workers voted to join the union. Photo: Nathan Bomey | Axios

Reality check: It won't necessarily be smooth sailing for the UAW in the South, which is dominated by states with "right to work" laws that make it harder for unions to collect dues.

  • Several governors in the South, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, 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," Ivey said in a statement issued along with the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

The bottom line: "Organizing in the United States is never easy, particularly in the South," Hertel-Fernandez says. "But I think the momentum that's coming off of the win really provides wind at their backs in a way that I think maybe changes the dynamic."

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