‘Victories would be nothing less than an earthquake’: can UAW win in the south? | US unions

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has launched an ambitious campaign to unionize 13 non-union automakers across the US, and the first big test begins this Wednesday when 4,300 Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, start voting on whether to unionize. Many VW workers are predicting victory.

“We’re going to win,” said Lisa Elliott, a quality control worker at VW. “We have the momentum. I know this will be a historic event.”

Elliott has worked at VW since 2019 when the UAW narrowly lost a unionization vote in Chattanooga, but she says the mood today is far different. She said most workers are jazzed about unionizing because of the UAW’s big victory in last fall’s strike and contract fight with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Jeep and Chrysler.

“I support a union because we don’t have a voice now, and there are some serious issues that need to be addressed,” Elliott said. “If the union wins here, it will definitely encourage workers in the other factories.” The vote in Chattanooga runs from Wednesday through Friday.

The UAW’s campaign has targeted 13 companies, including Toyota, Tesla and Hyundai, that have roughly 150,000 workers at 36 non-union plants. After VW, the next vote will be at the Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, where a supermajority of the 5,000 workers have signed cards requesting a unionization vote.

“I have great confidence that the union drive will be successful,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, a worker at Mercedes’ Vance plant since 1999. “A majority of workers have already voiced that they’re with the union, and very few are openly against.” The National Labor Relations Board has not yet set a date for the vote.

“A victory at Volkswagen would make a victory at Mercedes much more likely,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown and co-author of Labor in America: A History. “Victories at both Volkswagen and Mercedes would be nothing less than an earthquake. This would be the biggest breakthrough in private-sector organizing in decades. It would mean that the anti-union citadel [in the south] that has repulsed effort after organizing effort has been breached.”

Stephen Silvia, a political science professor at American University who has written a book about the failed unionization drives at VW, Mercedes and Nissan plants in the south, says several important developments make victories much more likely this time around. “The UAW’s strikes last year show that the UAW can deliver,” he said. “It really was a turning point for the UAW.”

For 30 years, Silvia said, the UAW was focused on fighting austerity and often agreed to concessions, but “when Shawn Fain came in as UAW president [in March 2023], he turned things around and focused on making gains for the workers”.

The UAW’s deal with Detroit’s automakers includes raises of 25% over four and a half years – more than the total raises won in the previous 22 years. The contracts also call for improved pensions, restoring the cost-of-living allowance, increasing the top wage to $40 an hour and raising starting pay by 68%.

“If they’re doing a union drive, they can now point to last fall’s contract settlement and say, ‘This is what the union can do for you.’” Silvia said. “They couldn’t say that before.”

Another change is that anti-union politicians in the south haven’t, at least so far, campaigned as fiercely against the union as in the past – perhaps because the GOP is trying harder to woo blue-collar voters. Moreover, GOP governors are no longer in as powerful a position to scare workers by threatening to deny their plants big subsidies and thereby jeopardize a plant’s survival. A major reason VW workers voted against unionizing in 2014 – 712 against to 626 for – was that Tennessee’s then governor, Bill Haslam, and state lawmakers had threatened to withhold $300m in subsidies to build a second production line at the Chattanooga plant if the workers voted to unionize. VW workers feared that if their plant had just one production line, it might not survive. Now there is little fear of the plant closing because VW added an expensive production line in 2022 to make its all-electric ID.4 compact SUV.

To be sure, southern politicians have spoken out against the UAW. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, said, “It would be a big mistake for [the VW] workers to risk their future” by unionizing. Alabama’s governor, Kate Ivey, wrote, “Alabama has become a national leader in automotive manufacturing, and all this was achieved without a unionized workforce … Unfortunately, the Alabama model for economic success is under attack.”

Fain fired back, saying that Ivey “dared to say that the economic model of the south is under attack. She’s damn right it is! It’s under attack because workers are fed up with getting screwed.”

Shawn Fain, president of the UAW, during a Senate committee hearing in Washington DC in March. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Under Fain, the UAW has abandoned its top-down style of organizing, and that has increased the union’s chances of winning. The UAW has let rank-and-file VW and Mercedes workers take far more control of their campaigns They fanned out quickly to collect pro-union cards, and the VW plant has 300 volunteer organizer captains.

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“The UAW has clearly taken a very creative, grassroots, militant approach to organizing and collective bargaining,” said Daniel Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “That’s a huge change.”

Another big change is that the UAW has gone far to shed its reputation for corruption. A corruption scandal in which UAW officials embezzled more than $3m and two former UAW presidents were sentenced to prison helped cause the UAW’s loss at VW in 2019. As a result of the scandal, the UAW agreed to have a federal monitor, and for the first time it established direct election of its president. Fain, an insurgent, won on an anti-concessions, anti-corruption platform.

“I think Fain is a great guy,” said Kelcey Smith, a paint shop worker at the VW plant. “I believe in his vision for the union. He supports the workers.”

Smith is very impressed by what Fain and the UAW achieved in their showdown with Detroit’s automakers. When the UAW lost at Volkswagen in 2014 and 2019, Smith said, “the union didn’t have anything on its plate for workers to look forward to. With what they accomplished with the big three, we feel they can accomplish that in the south.”

Daiquiri Steele, an employment law professor at the University of Alabama, sees some important changes in the south. “People in Alabama are starting to see that the union can win,” she said. “At one point, it would have been unheard of, an exercise in futility. I don’t think it’s being perceived that way any more. With social media, people now have more access than ever to people who live outside the south. They can see that people in unionized settings have so much more than they have. That can influence people to say, ‘How can I go about getting this, too?’”

At Volkswagen, a big issue is that many workers receive between 96 and 144 hours of paid time off a year (about 12 to 18 full-time days), but when VW closes the plant for a week or two during the year for maintenance, workers must use their paid time off if they want to be paid for those days the plant is closed. VW workers also complain that they don’t receive paid sick days.

At Mercedes, workers complain that the Vance plant adopted a detested two-tier wage system in January 2020 and offered little in the way of raises for several years. After the union drive started, Mercedes ended two-tier and announced long-awaited raises. Nonetheless, VW and Mercedes workers remain upset that they earn several dollars less an hour than UAW members.

“One thing we say is, ‘End the Alabama discount,’” said Kimbrell, the Mercedes worker. “We have shown we can build cars as good as anybody in the world. The time is over when companies can just go to the south and pay people less money and treat them worse. We’re sending the message, ‘Come on down. Take advantage of the skills our workers offer, and we’ll help you make profits. But if you come down, don’t take advantage of the workers down here. End the discount.’”


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