United States: ‘Breakthrough’ union win at Volkswagen

April 30, 2024
unionists with signs
After two previous failed attempts at unionisation, 73% of Volkswagen workers in Tennessee voted to be represented by the United Auto Workers on April 20. Photo: @UAW/Instagram

The Southern United States has the lowest unionisation rates in the country. So-called “right to work” anti-union laws make it hard to win unionisation ballots and negotiate contracts.

The Volkswagen (VW) factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee was previously the only VW facility in the world without union representation. But all that changed on April 20, when workers voted in favour of unionisation in a three-day ballot.

As reported by the Times Free Press, 73% of VW workers voted to be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) (2628), while 27% (985) voted against. About 83% of the eligible workforce voted.

UAW organiser Victor Vaughn told supporters after the results were announced: “We now have a voice, and we’re eager to sit down and negotiate a contract.”

UAW International president Shawn Fain said at the victory rally. “It’s an honor to stand here with workers who made history.”

Vicky Holloway, a VW employee who has worked on the assembly line and body shop for the past 13 years, told the Times Free Press that the mood of workers was much different this year than in the earlier unionisation efforts by the UAW.

VW workers voted against unionisation (53.2%) in 2014 and 51.8% voted against the UAW in 2019. The turnaround came after the UAW’s victories last year at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, where significant improvements were won in contract negotiations.

Following those successful campaigns, the UAW announced plans to organise all non-union foreign-owned plants, as well as Tesla’s assembly plant in California.

Yolanda Peoples, a member of the organising committee on the engine assembly line, told Labor Notes: “We could see what other auto workers were making compared to what we were making.”

LN reported that, to head off a union drive, VW boosted wages by 11% to match the immediate raise UAW members received at Ford.

“When [Ford] went on strike, we paid close attention just to see what happened. Once they won their contract, it changed a lot of people from anti-union to pro-union members,” said Peoples.

Past failures due to segregation and racism

The union movement’s leadership failed to seriously organise in the South following the 1930s upsurge, betraying Black workers.

The reason was clear to Black workers in the South (and North): the unions refused (but always gave lip service) to organise against “Jim Crow” segregation and support the Black freedom struggle.

The bosses played the racism card (appealing to white supremacist ideology) to undermine Black and white worker unity. It only began to change after the end of legal segregation in the late 1960s.

Anti UAW forces in Tennessee included the Chamber of Commerce, the Republican politicians including the city’s mayor and the state governor. They all told the workers a vote for the UAW could lead to the loss of jobs or VW leaving the state.

However, Tennessee Republican governor Bill Lee’s open letter to VW workers warning them that voting for union representation would jeopardise jobs, rang hollow, after non-union Tesla revealed plans to lay off 10% of its workers after disappointing sales results.

Sharon Block, a law professor at Harvard University who worked for the Biden administration on labour and other issues, told msn.com that VW workers saw this as “an empty threat and a cynical ploy,” and ignored it.

UAW’s President response

As reported by AP, Fain told cheering VW workers that the pundits all told him that the UAW couldn’t win in the South. “But you all said, ‘Watch this.’

“You guys are leading the way. We’re going to carry this fight on to Mercedes and everywhere else.”

As reported by AP, a five-day election is scheduled to start on May 13 at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the union has accused the company of violating US and German labour laws with its aggressive anti-union tactics. The company denies this.

“They are going to have a much harder road in work sites where they are going to face aggressive management resistance and even community resistance than they faced in Chattanooga,” said Harry Katz, a labor-relations professor at Cornell University. “VW management did not aggressively seek to avoid unionization. Mercedes is going to be a good test. It’s the deeper South.”

The UAW is targeting factories run by Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Volvo, according to AP, along with electric-vehicle makers Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.

Other unions plan new campaigns

As reported by msn.com, other unions are planning campaigns in the South along similar lines to the UAW. “The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which has tried and failed to win over cabin crews at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, hopes to collect enough signatures to force another election at Delta by year end.”

The union’s president, Sara Nelson “is trying to secure an industry-leading contract at United Airlines that she can use to court Delta crews. In the meantime, crews at startup Breeze Airways, many of whom live in the South, will vote next month whether to join her union.”

President Joe Biden congratulated the UAW on its victory, praising the success of the UAW, as well as the unions representing actors, writers and health care workers in gaining better contracts.

“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,” Biden told msn.com.

“Workers for a long time have been told that you can’t organize in the South. And many workers, even not in the South, may work in industries where they’ve been told for a long time you can’t organize,” Block told AP. “What the UAW showed last night is that we need to go and rethink all those negative statements.”

The broad unity of the workforce at the VW plant — Black and white workers — shows what an actual united front can accomplish.

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