Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Join UAW In Historic Labor Win

The election victory at a plant in Chattanooga marks a new chapter for the United Auto Workers and organized labor in the South.

Employees at Volkswagen’s SUV assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have voted to join the United Auto Workers in a historic labor victory, the union and Volkswagen announced late Friday.

A preliminary tally released by the company showed workers favored union representation by a count of 2,628 to 985, a nearly 3-1 margin. The landslide win gives the union a crucial toehold in the anti-union South.

The UAW called it a “historic breakthrough” in a statement.

More than 4,000 workers at the facility would be represented by the UAW, which has most of its auto membership at Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis, collectively known as the “Big Three.” The union previously lost two plant-wide votes at Volkswagen, including one in 2019, where it fell short by just 57 votes.

Volkswagen said in a brief statement that it would wait for the National Labor Relations Board to certify the results as official, suggesting it would not challenge them. The company, which is based in Germany, thanked its workers for voting.

“We're trying to make history here.”

- Volkswagen worker Yolanda Peoples ahead of the vote

This third Volkswagen election was closely watched because the union has struggled for years to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the South. But the UAW is riding high off its strike against the Big Three last year and has plans to unionize more plants in Southern states, including Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai facilities in Alabama.

The stakes are high for both the union and the industry. Over the years, automakers have increasingly set up operations below the Mason-Dixon line, where unions tend to be weaker and wages lower than in the Midwest. By failing to organize plants in the South, the UAW has lost much of the power it once wielded in setting working conditions across the industry.

Volkswagen automobile plant employees celebrate as they watch the results of a UAW union vote, late Friday, April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Volkswagen automobile plant employees celebrate as they watch the results of a UAW union vote, late Friday, April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
via Associated Press

Succeeding now could help push up wages and benefits for workers at those non-union facilities, while also giving the UAW more leverage where it already represents autoworkers. Organizing wins within the auto sector could also give a boost to the labor movement at large, at a time when union membership has dropped to just 10% in the U.S.

“We’re trying to make history here,” Yolanda Peoples, an assembly worker at the Chattanooga plant, told HuffPost ahead of the vote.

In interviews, many workers said they supported the organizing effort because of the grueling work pace in the factory. They also said they hoped a union contract could improve their amount of paid time off, boost pay rates and give them recourse against discipline from supervisors.

Volkswagen said ahead of the vote that it was proud of the wages it offered and defended its safety record as better than the industry at large. The company also said it was providing neutral information to workers about the election and encouraging them to vote.

“We respect our employees’ right to decide this important issue through a democratic process,” a spokesperson told HuffPost in an email.

“Organizing victories in the South could help the UAW push up wages at those plants and restore its leverage within the broader industry.”

The contracts the UAW won with Ford, GM and Stellantis helped the union close the deal with many Volkswagen workers. Wages at the Volkswagen plant are considered good for the area, with starting pay for a production job around $23 per hour and a top rate near $32. But the UAW’s contract with Ford will push the top rate there to nearly $43 by 2028. Several non-union automakers, including Volkswagen, quickly raised pay after the UAW settled contracts with the Big Three.

Some Republican politicians urged Volkswagen workers to reject the union, just as some lawmakers did during earlier campaigns in 2014 and 2019. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently said it would be a “big mistake” to unionize and suggested the plant might close, while U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty told HuffPost last week that workers’ “liberty and freedoms” were at stake in the vote.

President Joe Biden congratulated the workers and the UAW on Friday night, and criticized several Republican governors, including Lee, for a joint statement they issued earlier in the week encouraging workers to vote “no.”

“There is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose,” the president said in a statement.

As Peoples told HuffPost, this time workers were less fearful they could lose their jobs by organizing, knowing how much Volkswagen and Tennessee had invested in the plant, which opened in 2011. That was one of several reasons she felt certain of a union victory.

“It feels different, the whole thing,” Peoples said of the most recent campaign.

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