Updated Apr 20, 2024 - Business

Volkswagen workers vote to join UAW in historic win

Illustration of a car with a "Just Unionized" sign and cans tied to the back fender.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—The United Auto Workers secured a landmark victory Friday night, as Volkswagen workers at the automaker's plant in Chattanooga voted to unionize.

Why it matters: The VW factory becomes the only unionized automotive assembly plant in the U.S. not owned by the Detroit Three automakers: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

  • It also delivers a jolt of momentum to the UAW in its quest to organize the rest of the country's 13 non-unionized automakers, including Tesla, Toyota, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz.
  • "It was a resounding victory, and I think it's going to send a very, very strong signal about what's possible for the UAW," Harvard Law School professor and Center for Labor executive director Sharon Block tells Axios.

Driving the news: 73% of the workers who cast ballots voted "yes," while 27% voted no, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed late Friday.

  • The final vote tally was 2,628 to 985, with 83.5% of eligible voters casting ballots from April 17-19. Only a majority of voters was necessary.

State of play: VW said it will await certification of the results by the NLRB, and thanked its Chattanooga workers for voting.

  • If neither side challenges the results within five business days, the NLRB will certify the results, and then the two sides can begin bargaining for a contract.

What they're saying: "We are part of history!" VW organizing committee member Victor Vaughn said to cheers at a victory party. "This is just our first step."

  • "Volkswagen family, welcome to the UAW family!" UAW president Shawn Fain said to chants of "UAW" at the rally. "You all just proved the power of the four most powerful and important words in democracy: 'The people have spoken!'"

The big picture: The vote drives the UAW deeper into territory where it's historically been hard for unions to thrive: the American South.

  • The UAW narrowly lost two previous attempts to organize the Chattanooga factory — in 2014 and 2019 — amid substantial opposition in the South, particularly from Republicans.
  • This time around, though, Republican opposition was more muted amid a near-six-decade high of public support for unions in the U.S.

Supporters say the record contracts the UAW won at GM, Ford and Stellantis after an unprecedented strike in 2023 helped their cause at the VW factory, which had about 4,300 workers eligible to vote.

  • "What we know from union history is union interest and organizing is often contagious," Columbia University public affairs professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez said Friday night. "Once they see results it inspires greater interest."

Yes, but: It won't necessarily be smooth sailing for the UAW from here.

  • With another unionization vote set for May 13-17 at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 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: The UAW hopes to carry the momentum from this vote into other factories and states.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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