Volkswagen workers are voting on whether to join the UAW. The results could be felt nationwide

Apr 19, 2024, 7:54 PM

Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee are in the process of voting this week on...

Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee are in the process of voting this week on whether or not to join the United Auto Workers union. (Volkswagen via CNN Newsource)

(Volkswagen via CNN Newsource)

New York (CNN) — Renee Berry has been working at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee since 2010, shortly after it opened, long enough to see the majority of her co-workers twice vote against joining the United Auto Workers union. She thinks the third vote taking place this week will be different.

“It’s a totally different ball game,” she said. “The atmosphere is different. You see more pro-union than anti-union [workers]. A whole lot of people who were anti-union in the past have switched.”

The union vote at the Volkswagen plant will mean more than whether the 4,300 hourly workers in Chattanooga are members of the UAW or not. It could be the start of a revolution in the US auto industry, which has not seen a new automaker unionize in nearly 50 years.

Today the industry is split almost evenly between unionized and nonunion workers at US auto factories, and the unionization of a factory in Tennessee would give unions a high profile beachhead in the South, which has long been difficult territory for unions to organize.

Because the plant is in Tennessee, and not Michigan or Pennsylvania or some more unionized northern state, the results could be close, as they were in the two previous votes in 2014 and 2019 at the plant. The latest vote saw 52% decide against joining the union.

The plant has more than doubled its workforce from the 1,600 eligible to vote in the 2019 election. Supporters of the union are hoping that many of the new, younger workers will be more union-friendly than the workers in 2019.

Opponents of the union among rank-and-file are hoping the union will lose out again, although they admit they’re not sure that will happen this time.

“I don’t know. It could go either way,” said Darrell Belcher, who also started work soon after the plant opened. “The last time we were concerned it would swing [to the union]. I’m hearing people say there are more people against it than people think.”

UAW deal after auto strike influences vote

But it’s not just that there are more, and different workers at the Volkswagen plant than last time.

Previous votes were held after the union had negotiated concession contracts in which members at the unionized automakers had given up past gains, and in the wake of a corruption scandal that would land two former union presidents in prison.

This time the UAW is coming in a winner, after negotiating record wage increases at GM, Ford and Stellantis. The unprecedented simultaneous strike at all three automakers won immediate raises of at least 11% and pay increases of more than 30% over the life of the contract that runs through April 2028.

Even though Volkswagen quickly matched the UAW’s contracts with the Big Three with an 11% raise of its own, Berry said their contract in Chattanooga is still not as good as the UAW deals, and people know that.

“It opened up a lot of people’s eyes. That had a big impact,” Berry said.

“People here were rooting for [the strikers],” said Kelcey Smith, another union supporter who has been at VW for about a year. “It [the strike and the deal that followed] showed what you can achieve.”

Smith said he has never had a union-represented job, and despite his support for the union effort, it doesn’t mean that he holds anything against the company. “I love my job. I enjoy being an employee here,” he said.

But he said he wants the better pay and benefits he sees workers at unionized auto plants are getting, in order to provide more for his family.

Volkswagen said the average worker in its plant makes about $60,000 a year before bonuses and benefits. Production workers working under the recent UAW contract now make about $36 an hour, or about $75,000 a year before overtime, bonuses and benefits.

“I want to be financially safe, to give them a cushion in life,” Smith said. “I want to do what I can to make things better for them.”

But Belcher said he’s worried what will happen to his job if the union were to win the pay its supporters at the plant are promising they’ll achieve after a UAW win.

“In my opinion, if Volkswagen were to agree to something like that, they’d pack up and be gone to Mexico,” he said.

Volkswagen staying neutral

The company said it is neutral in the election, only urging workers to vote however they want. That’s relatively rare in union representation elections, where management often lobbies workers to vote no at mandatory meetings, and sometimes takes action against union organizers. Even union supporters acknowledge that hasn’t happened in this case, however.

One thing helping the UAW is that unions have much more clout in Germany than in the United States, and the main Volkswagen union there has a seat on the company’s board. This is also the only VW plant without union representation.

The vote is the first of an effort by the UAW to organize workers at 13 nonunion automakers spread across the country, mostly in the South.

Another vote, at a Mercedes plant just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is set to be completed by May 17. And efforts are underway to organize workers at the American plants of eight other foreign automakers beyond VW and Mercedes – BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, and Volvo, as well as the plants of three US-based electric vehicle makers – Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.

Together the US plants of those companies have about 150,000 workers, roughly as many as the three unionized automakers whose workers went on strike last year.

Even if the union wins in Chattanooga, it could be an uphill battle to win at the other companies, said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school. But it would be an important step in the broader organizing effort, he said. And that could change the dynamics in future auto contract negotiations.

“It won’t be like dominoes where the others all fall quickly,” he said. “But it’ll start to build momentum. As you get more plants organized, you have more leverage at the table and you can set an industry [contract] pattern.”

Southern governors worried

Because of the potential for organizing efforts to pick up steam once one plant joins the union, the vote is closely watched by people across the auto industry and the labor movements, as well as by politicians across the South, who have worked hard to attract manufacturers to their states with promises of a union-free work force.

“The reality is companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity. We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states,” said a letter signed by this week by Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee and five other Southern governors – from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas – who have nonunion auto plants in their states. “Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.”

Fewer than 5% of workers belong to unions in those six states, which is less than half the union representation in the seven more northern industrial states where the Big Three have most of their plants.

It’s not just Republican governors who are weighing in on the vote. President Joe Biden, who became the first president to visit a picket line during the UAW strike last fall, and who has been endorsed by the UAW, congratulated the Volkswagen workers when they filed for the election last month. But Biden’s ties to the union aren’t playing particularly well among the rank-and-file who will be voting at the Chattanooga plant.

“I know a lot of people on the pro side have switched over,” said Corey Linn, a 13-year employee and one of those working against the union. “The biggest argument to make the switch is once they found out that Biden was backing the UAW. He’s not very popular in Tennessee.”

Union supporters say they have also heard from co-workers who are afraid that their dues money would go to Biden, even though political donations from unions don’t come from the dues money collected.

“You hear all of that, ‘Why are they supporting Biden?’” Berry said.

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Volkswagen workers are voting on whether to join the UAW. The results could be felt nationwide