Following the UAW’s wins against the Detroit Three, TN Volkswagen workers vote to join the union

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People celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With over 51% of workers voting yes, the UAW won the right to form a union at the plant. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

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After the United Auto Workers (UAW) won big contracts last year resulting from its stand-up strike against the Detroit Three — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis — President Shawn Fain vowed that the union would take that momentum into organizing foreign auto companies in the U.S.

On Friday night, the UAW scored its first victory with Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voting to join the UAW, the National Labor Relations Board confirmed.

That marks the first time that southern autoworkers outside of the Detroit Three have won an organizing drive. According to the union, the vote was 73% in favor and 27% against.

“This election is big,” said Kelcey Smith, a worker in the paint department at Volkswagen. “People in high places told us good things can’t happen here in Chattanooga. 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.”

President Joe Biden, who walked a Michigan picket line in September in support of the UAW strike against the Detroit Three, sent out his congratulation Friday night for the “historic vote.”

“I was proud to stand alongside auto workers in their successful fight for record contracts, and I am proud to stand with auto workers now as they successfully organize at Volkswagen,” Biden said.

“Across the country, union members have logged major wins and large raises, including auto workers, actors, port workers, Teamsters, writers, warehouse and health care workers, and more. Together, these union wins have helped raise wages and demonstrate once again that the middle-class built America and that unions are still building and expanding the middle class for all workers.”

However, six Republican governors — Bill Lee of Tennessee, Kay Ivey of Alabama, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Tate Reeves of Mississippi, Henry McMaster of South Carolina, and Greg Abbott of Texas — wrote a letter opposing the union drive.

“The reality is companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity. We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy,” the letter said.

Biden, who is seeking reelection this year and likely faces former President Donald Trump, blasted the GOP governors for “attempting to influence workers’ votes by falsely claiming that a successful vote would jeopardize jobs in their states.

‘Nothing to fear’

“Let me be clear to the Republican governors that tried to undermine this vote: There is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose. In fact, the growing strength of unions over the last year has gone hand-in-hand with record small business and jobs growth alongside the longest stretch of low unemployment in more than 50 years. I will continue to stand with American workers and stand against Republican’s effort to weaken workers’ voice,” Biden continued.

The UAW said that 5,000 workers at Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Alabama, will vote to join the UAW on May 13 to 17. Following the Detroit Three strike, more than 10,000 non-union autoworkers have signed union cards in recent months, with public campaigns launched at Mercedes, Volkswagen, Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, and Toyota in Troy, Missouri. Workers at more than two dozen other facilities are actively organizing, the union said.

“We saw the big contract that UAW workers won at the Big Three and that got everybody talking,” said Zachary Costello, a trainer in VW’s proficiency room. “You see the pay, the benefits, the rights UAW members have on the job, and you see how that would change your life. That’s why we voted overwhelmingly for the union. Once people see the difference a union makes, there’s no way to stop them.”

The UAW had unsuccessfully tried in 2014 and 2019 to unionize the Chattanooga plant.

“This gives workers everywhere else the indication that it’s OK,” Fain said. “All we’ve heard for years is we can’t win here; you can’t do this in the South, and you can.”

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