Union victory at Chattanooga


On April 19, workers at  the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted 2,628 to 985 to join United Auto Workers (UAW). It was the first foreign-owned auto plant in the United States to unionize, but dozens of others may be coming. 

UAW launched an industry-wide organizing campaign in late November, just weeks after a gradually expanding 46-day strike at GM, Ford, and Stellantis concluded with record-setting contracts that reversed decades of concessions. UAW appealed to 150,000 non-union workers at Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Mazda, Rivian, Lucid, Volvo, and Tesla to “stand up,” sign a union card, and win similar terms. And it dedicated $40 million to support their organizing efforts. 

Since then, UAW says non-union autoworkers have begun actively organizing at over two dozen facilities, and over 10,000 have signed union cards in public campaigns launched at Mercedes, Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Toyota.

Volkswagen workers were the first to get to the finish line and voted “union yes” by a 73% margin, with 84% of the 4,326 eligible workers voting. Everywhere else in the world, VW factories are union-represented. But workers at the Chattanooga plant had twice before rejected unionization, with UAW winning 47% support in 2014 and 48% in 2019. Now, seeing the union win life-changing improvements at the “Big Three” U.S. automakers, they wanted in.

Next to vote will be roughly 5,200 Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama who have a union election scheduled May 13-17.

The entire U.S. South is considered hostile territory for unions, with “right-to-work” laws that make it illegal for union contracts to require represented workers to pay union dues. Ahead of the Chattanooga vote, five Southern governors — from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas — signed a letter urging workers to vote no.

“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 Republican governors wrote. “Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.”

But that fear tactic fell flat in Chattanooga given the investments VW has made. Volkswagen started construction on the plant in 2006, began operating in 2011, and invested $800 million more in 2019 to produce an electric SUV. 

President Joe Biden meanwhile encouraged the union vote, and congratulated workers for filing for a union election. 

“Many Volkswagen plants internationally are unionized,” Biden said in a White House statement. “I believe American workers, too, should have a voice at work.”

To head off the union drive, Volkswagen raised wages 11% to match the raise UAW members got. Now those raises are legally locked in under “status quo,” and workers can negotiate more improvements in their first contract.


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