Column: The UAW sends a lightning bolt into anti-union states with a huge victory at a VW plant

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 7: UAW President Shawn Fain greets members attending a rally in support of the labor union strike at the UAW Local 551 hall on the South Side on October 7, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. UAW president Shawn Fain later spoke to members in solidarity with the ongoing strike (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, center, is the architect of a series of labor victories including an organizing vote at a VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Jim Vondruska / Getty Images)
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Until Friday, the phrase "union victory at Chattanooga" could mean only one thing: the defeat of a Confederate army by forces under U.S. Grant at the Battle of Chattanooga in late November 1863.

No longer. On Friday, the United Auto Workers scored a decisive victory at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., as workers voted overwhelmingly to organize with the UAW.

The vote looks like a milestone. It was the UAW's first victory at an auto plant in the Deep South, following two defeats — in 2014 and 2019 — at the same plant. It comes on the heels of the UAW's success in negotiating impressive new contracts with the Big Three domestic automakers in October.

The real importance of this election is not just the organizing of this factory. It's that it announces the South is open to unions.

Labor historian Erik Loomis

The vote opens the door to further votes and organizing drives across the region, where political leaders have kept unions weak in part through anti-union right-to-work laws — all 14 Deep South states, as well as 12 others, have those laws. Next on the schedule is a vote by 5,000 workers at a Mercedes plant in Alabama, scheduled to take place May 13-17.

"The real importance of this election is not just the organizing of this factory," says labor historian Erik Loomis. "It's that it announces the South is open to unions.... This has been the greatest struggle for the American labor movement for more than a century. A serious breakthrough in the South is now possible."

The vote also represents a strong rebuke to the GOP political establishment in the South. Indeed, it turns the history of regional auto worker organizing on its head. In 2014, it may be remembered, Tennessee's GOP establishment pulled out the stops to discourage workers at the Chattanooga plant from organizing with the UAW.

VW was willing to accept unionization, with an eye toward replicating the labor-management "works councils" common among manufacturing companies at its home in Germany. (“Volkswagen considers its corporate culture of works councils a competitive advantage,” a member of VW's board had told the Associated Press.)

In response, then-Gov. Bill Haslam threatened the company with retribution, declaring that Tennessee would withdraw incentives for Volkswagen if the UAW was voted in.

Then-GOP Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, flew down from Washington to voice an almost certainly specious claim that VW executives had “assured” him that the company would open a new SUV manufacturing line at the plant — if the workers turned the UAW down. A local VW executive disputed that.

Read more: Column: The eight-hour workday was the paramount goal of unions in the 1800s. Is the four-day workweek next?

With shocking cynicism, Corker co-opted the language of political resistance to discourage workers from voting in the union, stating that if the UAW won the vote, "it’s going to be something we can overcome — we will overcome."

I marveled at the time that the ghost of Pete Seeger, who had turned a couple of traditional gospel songs into the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome," didn't rise from the grave and impale Corker on a lightning bolt.

Corker also perverted another protest slogan into an attack on workers by declaring, "the whole world is watching."

The 2014 organizing campaign failed on a 626-712 vote. After the UAW filed a protest with the National Labor Relations Board over the interference by Haslam, Corker and their cronies, the 2019 revote was held. It was another defeat for the union, but narrower, with 48% of the votes in favor, compared with 46% in 2014.

This time around, the vote was 2,628 in favor versus 985 against — a 72.7% majority.

Early signs that the Chattanooga workers would vote to unionize didn't stop GOP politicians from trying to place their thumbs on the scale. In a joint statement issued the day before voting began, Tennessee's current GOP governor, Bill Lee, and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas decried what they hypocritically called "the unionization campaign driven by misinformation and scare tactics that the UAW has brought into our states."

Read more: Column: Nonunion automakers are matching the UAW's great contract, but that may be bad for the UAW

The governors noted that all three automakers that signed the October contracts with the UAW had announced layoffs since then. That's true, but it was a lie to ascribe the layoffs to the union contracts: In each case, the companies linked them to an unexpected slowdown in the market for electric vehicles.

What the governors didn't mention — an inadvertent oversight, you can be sure — several of the non-union foreign automakers with plants in the South, such as Mercedes, Tesla and BMW, all of which are being targeted by the UAW, have also announced layoffs.

Perhaps more to the point, in the wake of the Big Three contract settlements, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Subaru all announced raises of as much as 11% for their workers — plainly a demonstration that higher pay at unionized companies ripples into the nonunion sector of an industry. All those companies except Subaru have plants in states represented by the governors who issued the statement; Subaru's only U.S. plant is in Lafayette, Ind.

"In America," the governors wrote, "we respect our workforce and we do not need to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch." They added, "when employees have a direct relationship with their employers, that makes for a more positive working environment. They can advocate for themselves and what is important to them without outside influence."

Students of anti-union rhetoric will recognize this spiel as drawn directly from the playbook of intransigently anti-union employers such as Starbucks, including the assertions that union representation is inimical to the smooth operation of a workplace and that unions interfere with the employee-employer relationship.

Read more: Column: How touchy-feely Starbucks became the poster child for illegal union-busting

As almost any experienced worker knows, "direct contact" between the rank-and-file and management almost never works out to the advantage of the workers unless they have the leverage that comes from collective action. The governors' claim that employees can successfully "advocate for themselves" is virtually pure myth.

The governors also may have failed to read the room, as the saying goes. "The demographics of the South are different than they were 10 years ago," Loomis told me. "More Latinos and more people moving from the North has been transformational to the South generally — the shift of politics in Georgia due to the expansive growth of Atlanta is one example. Charlotte has become a massive destination for young Black professionals, for another. The South simply isn't as different from the rest of the nation as it used to be."

Nor should one overlook the distinct change in labor policies at the federal level. Joe Biden's stature as possibly the most pro-labor president in American history has been widely noticed. He is the only president to walk a union picket line, as he did during the UAW contract negotiations; he has been sticking with Julie Su, his nominee as secretary of Labor against ferocious opposition from Big Business; and his National Labor Relations Board has fulfilled its role as a guardian of collective bargaining rights.

Whether NLRB oversight of the Chattanooga vote tamped down the company's efforts to undermine the vote isn't clear, but it couldn't have hurt.

The UAW's success in its contract negotiations may emerge as a powerful argument in favor of organizing at other auto plants. There may be some defeats in the South lurking on the horizon, but there may also be further successes.

It's worth recalling what happened after Grant's victory in Chattanooga in 1863. Following the nearly simultaneous Union victories of July 1863 at Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa., Chattanooga tightened the noose on the Confederacy, opening the door to Sherman's march to the sea in 1864 and the end of the Confederacy.

Last week's vote in Chattanooga might, just might, be an equivalent turning point in the long war for worker rights and welfare.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.