VW Workers in Tennessee Vote for Union

VW Workers in Tennessee Vote for Union

In a landmark victory for organized labor, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the United Automobile Workers union, becoming the first non-union auto plant in a Southern state to do so.

The company said in a statement late Friday that the union won 2,628 votes to 985 against in a three-day election. Two previous offers from the UAW to organize the Chattanooga factory in the last decade were narrowly rejected.

The result is a breakthrough for the labor movement in a region where anti-union sentiment has been strong for decades. And it comes six months after the UAW won record wage increases and improved benefits in negotiations with Detroit automakers.

The UAW has represented workers at General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis, the maker of Chrysler, Jeep, Ram and Dodge vehicles, for more than 80 years, and has organized some heavy-truck and bus factories in the South.

However, the union had failed in previous attempts to organize even one of the two dozen automobile plants owned by other companies in an area stretching from South Carolina to Texas and as far north as Ohio and Indiana.

With the victory in Chattanooga, the UAW will turn its focus to other plants in the South. The vote will take place in mid-May at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa. The UAW hopes to organize a half-dozen or more works in the next two years.

“Tonight you all took a giant, historic step together,” UAW President Shawn Fain said at a celebratory gathering in Chattanooga. “Tonight we celebrate this historic moment in the history of our country and our union. Let’s get to work and win more for the working class of this nation.”

A series of UAW victories could have a profound impact on auto workers in the South and the entire auto industry. Nonunion autoworkers typically earn significantly lower wages than those at UAW-represented plants, and collective bargaining could provide them with significant increases in wages, benefits and job security.

“Volkswagen workers will have a chance at better wages and working conditions under a collective bargaining agreement,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They will have a lot of job protections under a union contract that they don’t have now.”

At GM, Ford and Stellantis, all layoffs must be planned with advance notice to the union and workers receive a top-up in unemployment benefits. Non-union businesses are not required to take such measures.

A large UAW presence in the South would also disrupt an automotive landscape in which GM, Ford and Stellantis have higher labor costs than non-union competitors such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Tesla and Hyundai because of UAW contracts.

“This is a turning point for the industry,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the UAW for more than three decades. “It is an example that resonates across the industry and in other industries where there are large numbers of non-union workers.”

The UAW’s success in negotiations with the Big Three in the fall sparked a surge of interest among auto workers in the South in organizing their own plants, the union said, and prompted the UAW to launch a $40 million effort to do so to start support.

Volkswagen workers who voted for UAW representation said they hoped the union would help them win higher wages and more paid time off. The Chattanooga factory currently pays a top wage of about $35 an hour, compared to the top wage of more than $40 an hour that GM, Ford and Stellantis currently pay UAW workers.

The UAW contracts also provide for health insurance paid almost entirely by the companies, significant profit-sharing bonuses, cost-of-living adjustments to protect workers from inflation, and generous retirement programs.

Among those voting for the UAW in Chattanooga was Tony Akridge, 48, who is in his second year working on engines and transmissions on the night shift at the VW plant. His $23 hourly wage exceeds what he made in previous jobs, he said, but he voted for the UAW in the hope that the union could help improve workers’ living standards.

“It gives us a better chance,” Mr Akridge said. “They pay us well, but it’s not good enough for the things they need to do. He pointed to the rising cost of living, adding that the union “will benefit more from that, which makes life a little easier.”

Others are counting on UAW representation to push for more paid time off. Most VW workers either have to take unpaid time off when the plant closes during the summer and on holidays, or they have to use paid time off to cover those periods. If they do that, many will have just a few days left to cover any sick days or family leave for the rest of the year, workers said.

“We are forced to use our PTO a lot instead of using it on our own terms sometimes,” said Craig Jackson, 56, who voted for the union.

At Detroit automakers, UAW workers receive up to five weeks of vacation and 19 paid holidays, as well as two weeks of parental leave.

Workers who opposed the union at VW said they were unsure what benefits the UAW could bring them.

“You really don’t have any guarantees with them,” said Darrell Belcher, 54, who has worked at the assembly shop for 13 years and voted against the UAW in the plant’s two previous elections. “I’m not saying we won’t win anything, but we’ll probably lose something just to win something.”

Just before voting began, the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas — all Republicans — issued a statement Tuesday saying unionization would threaten auto industry jobs in their states .

“We want to keep good-paying jobs and continue to grow America’s automotive sector here,” the governors said. “A successful union drive will halt this growth to the detriment of American workers.”

But even some VW workers who opposed the UAW said they didn’t believe union representation would endanger the Chattanooga plant. “I don’t think the plant will leave Chattanooga or the South,” said Cody Rose, 34, a 13-year veteran of the plant who works in body shop production. “Volkswagen has invested too much in this area.”

The Chattanooga plant opened in 2011 and employs 5,500 people, about 4,300 of whom were eligible to vote in the union election. The plant produces the VW Atlas, a large sport utility vehicle, and an electric vehicle, the ID.4. It is the only Volkswagen plant in the United States and the only VW plant in the world that was not unionized.

The UAW had some advantages in gaining support from Volkswagen. Their efforts were supported by IG Metall, the powerful union that represents auto workers in Germany. German companies also have a strong tradition of giving employees a voice. According to German law, employee representatives must hold half of the seats on a company’s supervisory board, which corresponds to a board of directors.

The UAW can now turn its attention to the Mercedes plant in Alabama, which employs about 6,100 people. The union had tried to organize this plant before, but the effort failed before a vote was taken.

Jamie McGee contributed reporting.

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2024-04-20 04:05:04