Historic UAW victory at VW’s Chattanooga plant (U.S.)

Of the 5,500 workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant (Tennessee, U.S.), 73% voted yes to being represented by the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). This is the first time a foreign car manufacturer in the U.S. has a union-represented workforce and also the first time in the South of the States.

It’s a double victory for the UAW. Until now, the powerful union didn’t have access to non-American car manufacturers. VW’s Chattanooga plant is also one of the first factories in the South of the United States, where union representation is now a fact. Until now, the southern states were very dismissive about union representation in their factories.

In a press release, Volkswagen has vowed to neutrality in the matter. It stipulates that the three-day voting round was held democratically, with secret voting bulletins and with surveillance of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). “Volkswagen thanks its workers for having voted,” the company adds.

The NLRB stipulates that all parties still have five days to communicate about possible objections. The board adds: “The employer now has to start negotiating with the union in good faith.”

The vote is a huge victory for Shawn Fain, UAW President since March 2023. After a long strike (six weeks) last year, the American ‘Big Three’ (GM, Ford, Stellantis) were already on their knees. The UAW obtained a 25% wage increase over the next four years.

Southern offensive

After the victory last year, Shawn Fain and its UAW launched a new offensive to persuade the 150,000 auto workers (in thirteen different companies) in the South to get themselves represented by a union. The next vote is planned between 13 and 17 May in a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama. Other plants that may follow are Toyota (Missouri) and Hyundai (Alabama).

Earlier attempts by the UAW to get represented in these plants failed. The union faces fierce opposition from employers, especially from Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, who has already threatened to move its entire company to ‘more employer-friendly’ states like Texas or others.

Almost all Republican governors in the region are united against the presence of a union in ‘their factories’. Bill Lee, the Republican governor of Tennessee, has written a public letter accusing the union of undermining the economy and employment in his state.

Five other Republican governors in the South have co-signed the letter. Brian Kemp, Georgia’s governor, said on CNBC news channel that the governors wanted to protect the local employment model “founded on excellent relations between employers and employees.” He accused the UAW of wanting to destroy this.

Biden’s blessing

President Biden has publicly condemned this public letter and saluted the Chattanooga vote. He said that the letter contained wrong assumptions and was intended to sabotage the vote at the VW plant. Last year, Biden visited a striker’s picket line in Michigan to support the workers.

Stephen Silvia, who has studied the unions’ ‘southern move’ and published a book about it (The UAW’s Southern Gamble), believes that this Chattanooga vote was a turning point for syndicalism in the South.

“Until now, the South has always bet on a model with low salaries and minimal influence by the workers. It is now clear that these want to change this. This will stir political interest, not only on a local scale but also in Washington.”

Volkswagen is the first domino stone to fall,” commented a jubilant Shawn Fain. I hope and think this will engage a chain reaction in the South. The real fight is for the workers to get their fair share  of the cake.”

Mercedes management in Alabama (the next voting round) is strongly opposed to union representation in its factory. Are they afraid of an American type of IG Metall? Volkswagen, on the contrary, seems to accept and even look forward to dealing with union representation of its workers. In Europe, they have a long history of strong worker representation, with unions that are even represented on the board.

One can be short about Elon Musk’s intentions in the matter. He has publicly admitted that he deplores that he can’t offer the 14,000 employees he wants to lay off a lot of money. Still, he intends to move his company’s official headquarters (again), from Delaware to Texas, to access his 56 billion dollar bonus.




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