May 19, 2024

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Tennessee workers vote to join the UAW

Tennessee workers vote to join the UAW

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Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers union late Friday, giving the union a crucial foothold in the historically anti-union South.

Nearly three-quarters of workers voted to support the UAW, according to final results released by the National Labor Review Board. Of the 4,326 workers eligible to vote, more than 3,600 cast ballots during the three-day election.

As the votes were counted Friday night, first a trickle — then a wave — of bold red T-shirts with white lettering spread across the union hall Friday evening at IBEW Local 175.

Joseph McMullen entered the hall at around 9pm expecting many of his Volkswagen colleagues to vote in favor of creating a union. But he wasn't prepared for the overwhelming pro-union support that was on display.

“I think that's important,” said McMullen, an Alabama native who works in the quality department. “It sends a message.”

When news of the final victory was announced, audience members jumped, cheered and hugged each other. Minutes later, UAW President Shawn Fain arrived to congratulate VW workers.

“Many speakers and pundits told me over and over again, before we announced, that you can't win in the South. But you all said, 'Watch this,'” Fine told the cheering crowd. You all moved a mountain.”

The victory came despite strong opposition from a coalition of six Southern governors, including Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. On Tuesday, he wrote me a letter urging workers to reject unions.

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Once victory was declared, President Joe Biden responded directly to these governors in a statement.

“Let me be clear to the Republican governors who tried to undermine this vote: American workers have nothing to fear from using their votes and their legal right to form a union if they so choose,” Biden said.

Third time's the charm? How VW's Chattanooga plant finally came together

The UAW has tried and failed to organize the Volkswagen plant twice before, once in 2013 and again in 2019.

This election was part of a major campaign by the UAW to win new members in the South, a region that had historically been hostile to organized labor. In recent years, automakers have moved from the Midwest to the South, with foreign automakers and startups like Tesla and Rivian opening factories in the region.

After years of scandals and declining membership, the UAW has seen its fortunes rise under the leadership of Fine, who was elected in 2023. Last year, the UAW staged a strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, leading to a general strike. New contract suitable for 145,000 workersincluding employees at nearby Spring Hill.

The UAW's ability to organize Southern workers will be tested again in May, when workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, vote on whether they also want to join the union.

“This is a new day and we're just getting started,” Finn said.

Todd A. Price is a southern regional correspondent for the USA TODAY Network. It can be reached at [email protected].