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Volkswagen Tennessee plant unionizes in landmark win for auto union

Josh Eidelson, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Volkswagen AG employees at a Tennessee factory have voted to join the United Auto Workers, a landmark victory for union organizing in the long-hostile U.S. South.

The union won by a vote of 2,628 to 985, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board said late Friday. If the result is formally certified by the agency, Volkswagen will be legally required to collectively bargain over working conditions and compensation at the plant.

The VW victory is a breakthrough for the UAW, which after decades of declining membership is trying to expand by 150,000 workers across 14 companies, including BMW AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and Tesla Inc. The union’s membership has fallen from 1.5 million in the 1970s to around 370,000. That’s largely because of a failure to win over plants in the South, where unions are scarcer and laws and politicians are more hostile.

Union President Shawn Fain has pledged that, after record contract victories with Detroit’s three big automakers, “we can beat anybody.” The union has launched organizing efforts at dozens of plants.

The campaign at Volkswagen was the first to get enough traction for the union to seek an election. Workers say the Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Stellantis NV wins last fall were a major selling point.

“I want my life to be more like their life,” VW employee Chris Brown told Bloomberg in the lead up to the vote. VW employees also say the union was more effective than it had been in previous organization attempts in deterring anti-union campaigning by management.

Volkswagen workers “should have very high expectations” for what they can win in negotiations over a first union contract, Fain said in an interview Friday afternoon. “We want to try to follow our pattern” set by last fall’s contracts, he said.

Workers at the 4,300-employee factory cast ballots Wednesday through Friday in an election conducted by the NLRB.

“Volkswagen thanks its Chattanooga workers for voting in this election,” the company said Friday night in a brief statement acknowledging employees “voted in favor of union representation in their workplace.”

President Joe Biden congratulated employees, calling their vote “historic” and saying it reflects “the growing strength of unions over the last year.” The president said he was “proud to stand with auto workers now as they successfully organize at Volkswagen.”


Friday’s victory at VW offers the labor group much-needed momentum as it tackles other companies. Fain has said he plans to use victories to spawn others.

Volkswagen is “going to be the first domino to fall — I think it’s going to start a chain reaction,” he said Friday. “Once we show the world that it is possible, I think it’s going to open the door for thousands of other workers, tens of thousands of other workers to join in and to get justice on the job.”

The group’s next key test is a Mercedes-Benz Group AG plant in Alabama, which will vote on joining the UAW in May.

That may be a more difficult challenge for the union, with more resistance from management. But even before the victory at VW, Mercedes workers said they expected the campaign there to boost their own efforts.

“As soon as one of the bigger plants decides to commit to that change, there’s no doubt,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, a leader of the union’s organizing committee at the Mercedes plant. “It won’t be one and done.”

Volkswagen employee Lisa Elliott said she hoped the union’s landslide win would be a watershed for organizing elsewhere in the South.

“Who has the right to tell us that we’re not worth what other Americans are making?” Elliott said in an interview at the union’s victory party, wearing a UAW T-shirt left over from one of the union’s past election defeats years earlier at her plant.

Elliott, a member of the union organizing committee, said she’ll be heading to Alabama this weekend to speak to her counterparts from the Mercedes plant. “Every factory in the South is capable of doing what we did.”

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