VW Workers in Tennessee Start Vote on U.A.W., Testing Union Ambitions

Equipo
By Equipo
9 Min Read

Last fall the United Automobile Workers union won big pay increases from the Detroit automakers, and the impact rippled quickly through the nonunion auto plants scattered across the South.

Afterward, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai and Tesla raised wages for their own hourly workers in the United States, none of whom are unionized. On production lines in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and elsewhere, those pay increases have been referred to as the “U.A.W. bump.”

Now 4,300 workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will test whether the union can achieve an even greater bump. On Wednesday, they begin voting on whether to join the U.A.W., and the prospects of a union victory appear high. About 70 percent of the workers pledged to vote yes before the union asked for a vote, according to the U.A.W.

“I think our chances are excellent,” said Kelcey Smith, 48, who has worked in the VW plant’s paint department for a year and is a member of a committee working to build support for the U.A.W. “The energy is high. I think we are going to nail it.”

Volkswagen has presented reasons it believes a union is not needed at the plant, including pay that is above average for the Chattanooga region. But it has also said it encourages all workers to vote in the election, which is to conclude on Friday, and decide for themselves. “No one will lose their job for voting for or against the union,” a company spokesman said.

The stakes go beyond the Tennessee plant, Volkswagen’s only U.S. factory. A victory there would add fuel to the U.A.W.’s push to extend its presence to the more than two dozen nonunion auto plants in the United States, mostly clustered in Southern states where union resistance has been strong historically, and where right-to-work laws make it hard for unions to organize workers.

The U.A.W.’s chances beyond the Volkswagen factory are unclear. Japanese and South Korean automakers have demonstrated more forceful opposition to the U.A.W. than the German companies. Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has spoken out against the U.A.W. on several occasions over the last few years.

And on Tuesday, the Republican governors of six states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — denounced the U.A.W. drive, saying in a statement that they were “highly concerned about the unionization campaign driven by misinformation and scare tactics that the U.A.W. has brought into our states.”

“We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states,” the governors declared. “These jobs have become part of the fabric of the automotive manufacturing industry. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.”

The vote at VW will be followed by another election — as yet unscheduled — at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., where the U.A.W. says a majority of workers have signed up to back the union.

The U.A.W. says victories at VW, Mercedes and other plants would bring increased wages, richer benefits and higher living standards for tens of thousands of workers, many of them in the nation’s poorer counties.

Widespread unionizing in the Southern plants would also help level a playing field that for nearly half a century has been tilted against the three unionized Detroit manufacturers — General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler. In operating nonunion factories, foreign-owned companies have a significant labor-cost advantage over their U.S.-based rivals.

“It would be a revolution for the U.A.W. and for the auto industry,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the U.A.W. for more than three decades. “It would break the glass ceiling for unions in the South, and would mean more purchasing power for working-class people in that region.”

The U.A.W. has organized several heavy-truck and bus plants in the South, but for decades has tried and failed to do the same at automobile factories, which are typically larger.

In those efforts, the U.A.W. was hampered by a dubious track record and a questionable reputation. Over nearly 30 years, the Detroit automakers closed dozens of plants, eliminating tens of thousands of hourly jobs, despite the U.A.W.’s objections. Some industry executives have blamed high union wages, in part, for pushing G.M. and Chrysler into bankruptcy in 2009. In addition, the union was racked by corruption scandals that resulted in prison sentences for two former presidents and about a dozen other senior U.A.W. officials.

In the past two years, however, the U.A.W. has undergone a transformation. Financial reforms and transparency measures overseen by a federal monitor have helped root out corruption. A feisty president, Shawn Fain, was chosen in the union’s first direct election by the membership. In the contract negotiations last year with G.M., Ford and Stellantis, Mr. Fain used a new approach, choosing all three companies as strike targets but shutting down only selected plants, which put pressure on the companies without crippling them or damaging the broader U.S. economy.

After six weeks, the union had contracts raising the top wage 25 percent, to more than $40 an hour. Pay for workers lower on the wage scale will rise to the top wage over three years instead of eight. Some will see their pay double. A worker putting in 40 hours a week at the top wage will earn about $83,000 a year. In recent years, profit-sharing bonuses have added about $9,000 to $14,000.

On top of that, the new contracts provide wage adjustments if inflation pushes the cost of living higher, improved pensions and retirement benefits, and increased paid time off. U.A.W. workers have also long had company-paid health care with no deductibles or co-payments.

Hourly wages at the nonunion auto plants used to start under $20 and top out around $32. The “U.A.W. bump” lifted the range to roughly $22 to $35. Volkswagen said its workers typically earned about $60,000 a year. (The annual mean wage for all occupations in the Chattanooga area was $54,480 in May, according to the U.S. Labor Department.)

Seizing on momentum from the Big Three negotiations, Mr. Fain said, the union will spend $40 million through 2026 to support organizing at plants owned by Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda, Volvo and Tesla, as well as others owned by the electric vehicle start-ups Rivian and Lucid Motors.

VW workers who support the U.A.W. say their wages are pretty good for Tennessee but point 300 miles north to Louisville, Ky., where Ford pays many workers more than $40 an hour to make the Expedition sport utility vehicle, which competes with the VW Atlas made in Chattanooga.

“If Ford can pay that much, why can’t Volkswagen pay us the same?” said Isaac Meadows, 40, a father of six who has worked at the VW plant for 14 months. “We have more worth than they’re paying us.”

There are concerns beyond the hourly wage. Workers must use paid time off if they want to be paid during two periods when the plant shuts down around the year-end holidays and in summer.

Once he covers the shutdowns with vacation days, Mr. Meadows said, he is left with about 16 hours of paid time off to cover any family events or sick days for the rest of the year. “I miss my kids’ dances, sporting events, family gatherings,” he said. “I miss a lot because I’ve got to work.”

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