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labor UAW Wins Organizing Election at VW Tennessee Plant

The United Auto Workers achieved a historic organizing victory Friday night at a Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee plant as workers voted overwhelmingly to join the union following a three-day election.

The United Auto Workers achieved a historic organizing victory Friday night at a Volkswagen AG plant in Tennessee plant as workers voted overwhelmingly to join the union following a three-day election. 

The vote count was 2,628-985, according to unofficial results released by the automaker, the union and a National Labor Relations Board tally posted on X.

"Volkswagen Chattanooga workers voted in favor of union representation in their workplace this week," the automaker said in a statement. "The vote was administered through a democratic, secret ballot vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. ... We will await certification of the results by the NLRB. Volkswagen thanks its Chattanooga workers for voting in this election."

The factory, employing more than 4,300 hourly workers who build the ID.4 electric vehicle and two versions of the Atlas SUV, is the first foreign-owned auto plant in the South to organize. In recent years, the UAW had narrowly failed to win approval at the same VW plant twice before, in 2019 and 2014, and also came up short in an election at a Mississippi Nissan plant in 2017. 

But riding tailwinds from last fall’s strikes that garnered rich new contracts with the Detroit Three automakers — plus broad public support for unions generally of late — the union finally pulled off the win in a state that takes pride in a low unionization rate and its right-to-work law. 

The UAW, in a statement announcing the victory, sent out several statements from VW workers who supported the organizing campaign.

“People in high places told us good things can’t happen here in Chattanooga," Kelcey Smith, a paint department worker, said in the union release. "They told us this isn’t the time to stand up, this isn’t the place. But we did stand up and we won. This is the time; this is the place. Southern workers are ready to stand up and win a better life.”  

Added Doug Snyder, a body worker at Volkswagen: “This is a movement for every blue-collar worker in America. Our vote shows that workers everywhere want a better life on and off the job.

VW said it took a neutral position on the vote, issuing a statement prior to the election that “we respect our employees’ right to decide who represents them in the workplace.” The Chattanooga plant was the company’s only nonunion factory in the world. 

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Organizing the VW plant was the union’s first step in a larger $40 million push to convert other auto plants around the South operated by companies such as BMW AG, Tesla Inc., Toyota Motor Corp., and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. 

A second UAW election, at a Mercedes-Benz Group facility outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is scheduled to run May 13-17, the NLRB said earlier this week. The union has also said it’s working on organizing a Hyundai plant near Montgomery, Alabama. 

Workers in favor of joining the union at VW said in the days leading up to the vote that this time felt different, and they didn’t have to be as secretive about their organizing efforts as in previous elections. 

They told The Detroit News they wanted to join the union for the usual reasons around wages, benefits and vacation time, but some also flagged concerns about plant safety and ergonomics. Worker Patricia McFarland, 56, said she favored unionization “because work conditions can be a whole lot better, the pay could be a whole better, the benefits could be a whole lot better.” 

But the UAW’s campaign also received some stiff opposition in the final daysbefore the election, including from local and state Republican leaders. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee visited Chattanooga earlier this month and publicly made the case that workers voting for the union would be making a “big mistake” and could “risk their futures.” 

A coalition of six southern governors including Lee also issued a joint statement this week arguing the UAW’s larger organizing push would threaten the region’s jobs and values. Some politicians flagged the union’s left-leaning politics in recent days as well. President Joe Biden joined UAW leaders on a picket line in Michigan last fall, and the union endorsed the president for reelection earlier this year. 

A website and Facebook page calling itself “Still No UAW” also popped up in the lead-up to the election, featuring videos of VW workers opposed to the union. 

One of the “no” vote workers was Dirk Horvath, a seven-year VW worker who delivers parts to the line. He told The News on Thursday, as the vote was underway, that the UAW’s presence would only introduce new tension into his workplace. 

“Unions have a tendency to create a hostile work environment between the administration and the workforce,” he said. 

He added: “There’s no reason for representation in the plant. VW bends over backwards for us.”