Volkswagen Workers in Tennessee Vote for Union, a First in the South

Volkswagen's Chattanooga factory workers vote 73% in favor of union representation, marking the first successful unionization of a foreign-owned auto plant in the South. Next, workers at two Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama will vote on unionization, citing concerns over pay and working conditions.

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Bijay Laxmi
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Volkswagen Workers in Tennessee Vote for Union, a First in the South

Volkswagen Workers in Tennessee Vote for Union, a First in the South

In a historic move, auto workers at Volkswagen's factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation. With 73% of ballots cast supporting the union, this marks the first time workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South have successfully unionized.

Why this matters: This breakthrough in unionization could pave the way for similar efforts at other foreign-owned auto plants in the South, potentially shifting thelabor landscape in the region. The outcome could also have broader implications for the auto industry as a whole, influencing wages and working conditions across the country.

The victory in Chattanooga comes after the United Auto Workers (UAW) made eight failed attempts over the past 35 years to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the South. Two of those previous drives aimed to unionize the entire Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, but fell short.

The UAW, which represents around 150,000 workers at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, is now looking to build on its success in Tennessee. Workers at two Mercedes-Benz plants near Tuscaloosa, Alabama will vote next week on whether to join the union, in an election running from May 13-17, 2024.

At the Mercedes plants, many workers supporting the union drive cite concerns over stagnating pay that has not kept pace with inflation, high insurance costs, irregular work shifts, and a sense of being disposable. They are demanding what they call "autoworker pay" and better working conditions.

"Yes, we're Southern autoworkers, but we deserve autoworker pay," said Brett Garrard, a 50-year-old Mercedes employee. The company currently advertises a starting wage of $23.50 per hour for production workers, topping out at about $34 after four years. But workers say their pay has not kept up with the rising cost of living.

The UAW points to its recent success in securing more generous contracts with Detroit's Big Three automakers as evidence of what a union can achieve. Under deals struck in 2024, top-scale workers at GM, for example, will make $42.95 per hour, or about $89,000 a year, by 2028.

Mercedes-Benz has stated that it looks forward to all workers having a chance to make an informed choice on unionization in the upcoming secret ballot vote. But not all employees support the union drive. Melissa Howell, a 56-year-old quality team leader, said she is suspicious of the UAW due to its past bribery and embezzlement scandal, and believes the company has made positive changes in recent months without a union.

As the UAW celebrates its breakthrough in Chattanooga and gears up for the consequential vote in Alabama, the outcome could have major implications for the future of the labor movement and auto industry in the South. The region has long been resistant to unions, but with workers increasingly vocal about their demands for better pay and conditions, the landscape may be starting to shift.

Key Takeaways

  • VW workers in Chattanooga, TN vote 73% in favor of union representation.
  • This marks the first time workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South have unionized.
  • UAW aims to build on this success with upcoming vote at Mercedes-Benz plants in Alabama.
  • Mercedes workers cite concerns over pay, insurance costs, and working conditions.
  • Outcome could shift labor landscape in the South and have broader implications for the auto industry.