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Revving Up Change: Volkswagen Workers Decide on UAW Affiliation, Potential Nationwide Impact

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Renee Berry, a seasoned employee at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee since its inception in 2010, has witnessed two prior rejections of United Auto Workers (UAW) union affiliation among her colleagues. However, she senses a shift in the air as the third vote looms this week. "It’s a totally different ball game," she asserts. "The atmosphere is different. You see more pro-union than anti-union. A whole lot of people who were anti-union in the past have switched.

Beyond the mere tally of 4,300 hourly workers in Chattanooga either joining or rejecting the UAW, the outcome of this union vote carries weighty implications. It could potentially mark the inception of a transformative period in the US auto industry, which has remained largely untouched by unionization for almost half a century. Presently, the sector is split evenly between unionized and nonunionized labor in US auto factories. A successful unionization effort in Tennessee could establish a prominent foothold for unions in the traditionally resistant South.

Given its location in Tennessee rather than in more union-friendly northern states, the vote's outcome hangs in the balance, akin to the previous close contests in 2014 and 2019, which saw a slim 52% majority rejecting union membership. Since then, the plant's workforce has more than doubled from 1,600 eligible voters in 2019, with union supporters banking on the likelihood of newer, younger workers being more receptive to unionization.

Conversely, union opponents within the rank-and-file express uncertainty about the vote's outcome this time around. "I don’t know. It could go either way," admits Darrell Belcher, who joined the workforce soon after the plant's establishment. "The last time we were concerned it would swing. I’m hearing people say there are more people against it than people think.

Yet, the shift in dynamics extends beyond the composition of the Volkswagen workforce. Previous votes occurred amidst negotiated concession contracts and a corruption scandal within the union's leadership, factors that may have influenced past outcomes but may not wield the same sway this time.

This time around, the United Auto Workers (UAW) is emerging victorious, having clinched record wage hikes at GM, Ford, and Stellantis through arduous negotiations. The unprecedented coordinated strike across all three automakers yielded immediate raises of no less than 11%, with pay escalations of over 30% slated over the contract's duration until April 2028. Despite Volkswagen swiftly matching the UAW's terms with an 11% raise, Renee Berry from Chattanooga insists their contract still falls short of the UAW's offerings, a realization resonating widely among workers.

It opened up a lot of people’s eyes. That had a big impact," reflects Berry. "People here were rooting for," echoes Kelcey Smith, another union advocate with a year's tenure at VW. "It showcased what’s achievable.

For Smith, whose prior jobs lacked union representation, his support stems from a desire for improved pay and benefits for his family, echoing sentiments of many colleagues. While Volkswagen cites an average worker earning $60,000 annually pre-bonuses and benefits, UAW-contracted production staff now command around $36 an hour, translating to roughly $75,000 yearly before overtime, bonuses, and benefits.

I want to be financially secure, to provide a safety net for my family," Smith expresses. "I want to contribute to their well-being.

Conversely, Darrell Belcher voices apprehensions regarding potential repercussions if the union secures the pay levels promised by its advocates. "In my opinion, if Volkswagen were to agree to something like that, they’d pack up and be gone to Mexico," he frets.

The company maintains neutrality in the election, solely urging workers to vote according to their convictions, a stance uncommon in union representation votes where management often campaigns against unionization. Interestingly, this hasn't occurred in this instance, a fact even acknowledged by union supporters.

A significant factor bolstering the UAW's position is the robust influence of unions in Germany compared to the US, with Volkswagen's main union there holding a board seat. Notably, this Chattanooga plant remains the sole VW facility without union representation, a distinction that may soon change.

The ballot cast in Chattanooga marks the inaugural step in the UAW's ambitious endeavor to organize employees across 13 nonunion automakers dispersed nationwide, primarily concentrated in the Southern regions. Concurrently, another pivotal vote is underway at a Mercedes facility just outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama, slated for completion by May 17th. Furthermore, concerted efforts are in motion to rally workers at the American plants of eight additional foreign automakers, including BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, and Volvo, alongside the facilities of three US-based electric vehicle manufacturers—Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid. Collectively, these companies employ approximately 150,000 workers, a figure on par with the combined workforce of the three unionized automakers that participated in last year's strike.

Even if victory is secured in Chattanooga, prevailing at other corporations could prove to be a formidable challenge, cautions Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations school. Nonetheless, he underscores the significance of such an achievement within the broader organizing endeavor, foreseeing potential shifts in future auto contract negotiations. "It won’t be like dominoes where the others all fall quickly," Wheaton remarks, "But it’ll start to build momentum. As you get more plants organized, you have more leverage at the table and you can set an industry pattern.

Given the potential for burgeoning momentum once one plant aligns with the union, the outcome of the vote garners keen attention from stakeholders across the auto industry, labor movements, and political spheres—particularly in the South. Politicians in these states, who have diligently courted manufacturers with pledges of a union-free workforce, express concerns about the ramifications of unionization on job security. "The reality is companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity," underscores a letter signed by Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee and five other Southern governors. "Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.

With union membership in these states hovering below 5%, less than half of the representation found in the seven more industrially inclined northern states where the Big Three predominantly operate, the battle for unionization in the South faces unique challenges and implications.

The upcoming vote isn't just drawing attention from Republican governors; President Joe Biden himself, who made history as the first president to visit a picket line during the UAW strike last autumn and enjoys the union's endorsement, extended congratulations to the Volkswagen workers upon their election filing last month. However, Biden's affiliation with the union isn't resonating positively with all the rank-and-file voters at the Chattanooga plant.

I know a lot of people on the pro side have switched over," remarks Corey Linn, a 13-year veteran at the plant and one of those opposing the union. "The biggest argument to make the switch is once they found out that Biden was backing the UAW. He’s not very popular in Tennessee.

Despite political contributions from unions not being sourced from dues, union advocates report encountering concerns among colleagues worried about potential association with Biden. "You hear all of that, 'Why are they supporting Biden?'" observes Berry.

In conclusion, the upcoming unionization vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga not only holds significant implications for the workers and the broader labor landscape but also underscores the complex intersection of politics and labor relations. With voices ranging from Republican governors expressing concerns about potential job loss to President Biden's endorsement of the union, the decision facing the workers reflects deeply entrenched beliefs and perceptions. Regardless of the outcome, the vote serves as a testament to the power of collective action and the ongoing evolution of labor dynamics in the United States.

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