UAW hopeful of watershed union victory at Volkswagen Tennessee factory

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[April 19, 2024]  By Nora Eckert

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers is counting on scoring a seismic victory at Volkswagen's Tennessee plant as unionization votes are tallied on Friday - one that opens up the anti-union U.S. South to organized labor.

A win would make the Chattanooga factory the first auto plant in the South to unionize via election since the 1940s and the first foreign-owned auto plant in the South to do so.

It would also be a huge shot in the arm for UAW President Shawn Fain's campaign to unionize plants owned by more than a dozen automakers across the U.S., including Tesla. Fain and his team have committed to spending $40 million through 2026 on the effort.

Federal officials from the National Labor Relations Board on Friday evening will start the counting of ballots after three days of voting ends, with results expected around 11 p.m. Eastern Time (0300 GMT).

"Everybody else is watching," said Isaac Meadows, a worker at the VW plant, who said he voted in support of the union. "This is going to change the labor landscape across the country."

Although the UAW narrowly lost votes at the same plant in 2014 and 2019, this year's vote has been preceded by surging public support for unions and successful contract negotiations last year with the Big Three automakers.

The UAW has said it sets votes in motion once 70% of eligible workers at a plant - of which there are approximately 4,300 at VW's Tennessee factory - have signed cards supporting unionization.

While success for the UAW is widely expected to bolster unionizing momentum at other factories, anti-union sentiment is entrenched in many parts of the U.S. South. Earlier this week, Republican governors in six southern states including Tennessee spoke out in opposition to the union drive.

"We're going through an unusual, even unprecedented period when it comes to unions more generally and VW is at the epicenter of that right now," said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the last several months, a group of volunteer workers at the plant, which produces the electric ID.4 SUV and other vehicles, held organizing meetings to drum up support, with occasional guidance and assistance from Detroit's UAW officials.

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A view of the Volkswagen plant where workers are voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers union (UAW), in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., April 18, 2024 REUTERS/Nora Eckert

Some of the plant's employees have countered that joining the UAW could weaken workers' job security in the future.

Workers on both sides agree that the plant's campus has been quieter than previous years as ballots were cast, contrasting to past votes when scores of union supporters and opponents - both employees and members of the wider community - lined the driveway.

VW has said it has taken a neutral position on the vote at its only non-union factory globally. The UAW has previously represented VW workers at a Pennsylvania plant that built Rabbit cars before it closed in 1988.

For decades, the union has struck out at southern auto plants. In addition to the two narrow losses at VW previously, it sustained three more significant misses at southern factories owned by Nissan, the last in 2017 in Mississippi.

The broader labor movement has since gone through somewhat of a renaissance, with a record number of workers across various industries going on strike last year.

Last autumn U.S. President Joe Biden walked picket lines outside Detroit, where the union scored double-digit percentage raises as well as cost-of-living increases from General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis. That sparked a wave of hikes by non-union automakers that some analysts said were designed to keep out unions.

A Mercedes plant in Alabama, at which a majority of workers have signed cards indicating they support unionization, will be the next facility to hold a UAW election, the week of May 13.

The UAW has also said that more than 30% of employees at a Hyundai plant in Alabama and at a Missouri Toyota auto parts factory have signed cards indicating they want to join the UAW.

(Reporting by Nora Eckert; Editing by Peter Henderson and Edwina Gibbs)

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