Factory workers vote on whether to unionize Tennessee Volkswagen plant

Votes are almost in from factory workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee deciding whether to join the United Auto Workers (UAW), an election that could signal more momentum in organized labor following a year of high-profile strikes and major contractual wins for workers.

The vote at the Chattanooga plant is a direct challenge to states with “right to work” laws, which generally make it more difficult to unionize. Many such states are located in the South.

More than 4,000 Volkswagen workers are set to vote in the election before it concludes Friday evening, according to the union.

The UAW, which has narrowly lost two elections at the Tennessee plant over the past decade, isn’t shying away from the regional dimension of the labor fight, encouraging “Southern workers to stand up.”

“Mercedes workers in Alabama just filed for their election. And non-union autoworkers across the South are getting ready to stand up and join them,” the UAW says on its website.

Republican Southern governors came out against the union vote in a letter this week, writing that the union push threatens “jobs” and “values.”

“We have a responsibility to our constituents to speak up when we see special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by,” the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee wrote in a Tuesday letter.

A UAW strike last fall at the former “big three” Detroit automakers of Ford, General Motors and Stellantis saw workers secure major contractual wins including the restitution of cost of living adjustments that peg salaries to inflation, bonuses for retirees, and the elimination of wage tiers.

President Biden became the first sitting president in U.S. history to join the picket line on behalf of UAW workers during their strike.

“These historic contracts reward the autoworkers who have sacrificed so much with record raises, more paid leave, greater retirement security, and more rights and respect at work,” the White House said in a statement in November.

Labor experts have noted the historical resistance to different forms of organized labor in the South and say the Volkswagen vote is especially significant as a result.

“This is a problem they’ve had for probably close to 400 years,” Cornell University labor expert Arthur Wheaton told The Hill.

The popularity of organized labor in the U.S. is near 50-year highs, with 67 percent approving of unions in 2023, according to data by polling agency Gallup.

After a bout of high inflation following the pandemic and a cost-of-living crunch felt notably in food prices and housing costs, the UAW and other labor organizers have been seizing on this popularity to increase their influence.

“Over 10,000 non-union autoworkers have signed union cards in recent months, with public campaigns launched at VW, Mercedes in Vance, Ala., Hyundai in Montgomery, Ala., and Toyota in Troy, Mo. Workers at more than two dozen other facilities are also actively organizing,” the union said in a news release.

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