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This major unionization vote at a Volkswagen plant could be a turning point for organized labor

As workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga decide whether to join a union, they could be determining whether organized labor begins to regain power in the U.S. employment landscape.

This major unionization vote at a Volkswagen plant could be a turning point for organized labor
[Photo: Mark Elias/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Update: The vote was 883 against the union and 776 for it, resulting in a loss for the the UAW. In response, the UAW called on Congress to reassess the labor laws that they say let Volkswagen pressure workers into voting against the union. The plant’s chief executive, Frank Fischer, said in a statement: “Our employees have spoken. We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with elected officials and business leaders in Tennessee.”

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The United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) has been trying to organize employees at internationally owned auto plants in the American South for decades. Automobile manufacturing, historically centered in Detroit, was also historically heavily unionized. But when foreign car makers, like Volkswagen and Toyota, began to expand their manufacturing operations to the U.S., they opened their plants away from Detroit, in the south. Many states in the South have “right to work” laws that make union organizing and operating a union more difficult.

The UAW, which organizes the Detroit-based plants, has been working to change the paradigm in Southern plants since foreign companies began establishing a presence there in the 1990s. They have not meet with success. Five years ago, a unionization vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga that was seen as a bellwether for the future of the effort ended with workers rejecting the decision to join the UAWW by a 727-626 margin.

But right now, they have a chance to reconsider that outcome. From June 12 to June 14, the VW Chattanooga plant’s over 1,000 workers will vote again whether to join UAW and receive the benefits of a union. Mike Elk, a reporter and founder of labor news website Payday Report who covered the first election at VW Chattanooga, wrote in BuzzFeed that many workers who previously voted “no” say they are likely to change their minds.

“Chattanooga workers are the only VW workers in the world that have no union and ability to sit down and directly discuss issues with management,” says Brian Rothenberg, a public relations officer for UAW who is managing communications for the effort in Chattanooga (VW plants in Europe are far more labor friendly). “Why should Chattanooga workers be any different?”

In the five years since the last vote, workers at the plant have reportedly felt that Volkswagen has not provided a fair working environment, often changing schedules last minute, offering inadequate vacation, and ineffectively enforcing health and safety measures. Steven Fugat, a pro-UAW worker at the plant, told Reuters that “this is not about a pay raise–I just want some stability, I want to know when I have to work and when I get to be with my family or helping out at my church.”

In the South, where organized labor has been losing power for decades in the face of right-to-work laws at the state level and anti-union tactics at major employers, the possibility that VW Chattanooga workers may vote to join a union is a seminal moment. There’s no doubt that this effort is riding the wave of attention on labor in the region initiated by last years’ teacher strikes, which issued an enormous collective call for better working conditions across states like West Virginia and Oklahoma. If workers vote to unionize at VW Chattanooga, it could mean that labor unions like UAW redouble their organizing efforts at other plants across the South.

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But still, it will be an uphill battle. Elk notes that because unionization drives, including this one, typically receive little media coverage, Volkswagen and anti-union groups like the Center for Union Facts have been trying to sway local opinion against organized labor via paid ads saying the union will threaten people’s jobs at the plant. For its part, Volkswagen says in a statement that it’s trying to address the concerns without a union: “We want to continue that open dialogue also in the future. We believe that we can achieve more for the company and our workers by continuing that open dialogue as we have done successfully so far.”

However, recent research has shown that unions tend to improve conditions at workplaces and enable workers to advocate for benefits like better pay and more robust vacation. A University of Illinois study from last year linked the general stagnation of wages in the U.S. to organized labor’s waning power. As workers get more fed up with eroded conditions, everywhere from Amazon to public schools, they’re increasing turning to unionizing as a way to correct their circumstances.

If the workers vote to approve a union at VW Chattanooga, it could be a sign that organized labor is regaining its long-shaky foothold in the U.S. labor landscape. We will update this story as the results of the vote come in.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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