VW Workers Seek Union Vote at Tennessee Plant for Third Time

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Volkswagen employees in Tennessee who are hoping to join the United Automobile Workers asked a federal agency on Monday to hold an election, a key step toward the union’s longtime goal of organizing nonunion factories across the South.

The union said Volkswagen workers had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking for a unionization vote after a “supermajority” of the 4,000 eligible workers at the plant had signed cards supporting the U.A.W.

It did not specify how many workers had signed cards, but it previously advised workers to get the support of more than 70 percent of hourly workers and establish a robust organizing committee before seeking an election. A simple majority vote is needed to win representation.

“Today, we are one step closer to making a good job at Volkswagen into a great career,” Isaac Meadows, an assembly worker at the plant, said in a statement issued by the union.

An election at the factory would be the first test of the U.A.W.’s strength after the union staged a wave of strikes in the fall against the three Detroit automakers — General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis — and winning record wage increases — with encouragement from the Biden administration.

In a statement on Monday, Volkswagen said it would “fully support” an election giving every employee a chance to vote on union representation. “We respect our workers’ right to a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests,” the company said.

The U.A.W. has been hoping to use momentum from its bargaining with the Detroit-based manufacturers to organize nonunion plants in Southern states that pay significantly lower wages than union factories. The U.A.W. says it plans to spend $40 million over the next three years on its campaign.

Chattanooga workers have voted on U.A.W. representation twice before, and slim majorities rejected unionization each time. In a 2014 vote, the union had no opposition from Volkswagen management, but there was vocal resistance from state Republican leaders, who suggested that unionizing would jeopardize expansion and job growth at the plant. A second narrow loss came in 2019.

Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the U.A.W. was in a strong position to gain a majority this time.

“Now they have a lot more support from legislators, the public and the president,” he said. “They can say, ‘We can help you get better wages and benefits, and we proved we could do that with the Big Three.’”

Over the last 40 years, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and other foreign-owned automakers have built more than two dozen auto plants across the South and the lower Midwest, drawn by right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to organize workers.

They also often chose to build factories in rural areas where prevailing wages are significantly lower than in Michigan and other Northern states.

In addition to the Volkswagen effort, union campaigns are underway at a Mercedes-Benz plant and a Hyundai factory, both in Alabama. The union says more than half of the Mercedes workers and more than 30 percent of the Hyundai workers have signed cards supporting U.A.W. membership.

Volkswagen workers said they wanted to join the U.A.W. to push for higher wages, more time off and improved safety measures. The Chattanooga factory opened in 2011 and makes the Atlas full-size sport utility vehicle and the ID.4 electric vehicle. It is the world’s only Volkswagen plant without union representation.

“VW has partnered with unionized work forces around the world to make their plants safe and successful,” Victor Vaughn, a logistics worker, said in the union statement. “That’s why we’re voting for a voice at Volkswagen here in Chattanooga.”

The U.A.W. is likely to have support in the election from the powerful German labor union, IG Metall, which under German law occupies half of the seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, the equivalent of an American board of directors.

The U.A.W. has sought for years to organize these nonunion auto plants without success, but unions have had a resurgence in recent years in organizing efforts and contract showdowns.

G.M., Ford and Stellantis agreed in the fall to roughly 25 percent wage increases for workers making the top U.A.W. wage, and even larger raises for workers farther down on the pay scale.

Within a few years, almost all of the 146,000 U.A.W. workers at the Detroit companies will earn more than $40 an hour — the equivalent of about $83,000 a year for those working 40 hours a week.

The Volkswagen plant announced an 11 percent pay increase shortly after the strikes at the Big Three, bringing the top hourly wage for production workers to $32.40.

Nonunion auto plants generally start new workers at less than $20 an hour and pay a top wage under $30 an hour.

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