UAW ahead as first ballots counted in union vote at Volkswagen's Tennessee factory

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UAW ahead as first ballots counted in union vote at Volkswagen's Tennessee factory
Credit: © Reuters.

By Nora Eckert

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee (Reuters) -An early tally of ballots on a key unionization vote at Volkswagen (ETR: VOWG_p )'s Tennessee plant showed most workers in favor of joining the United Auto Workers union.

A win would make the Chattanooga factory the first auto plant in the South to unionize via election since the 1940s and the first foreign-owned auto plant in the South to do so.

It would also be a huge shot in the arm for UAW President Shawn Fain's campaign to unionize plants owned by more than a dozen automakers across the U.S., including Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA ). Fain and his team have committed to spending $40 million through 2026 on the effort.

Federal officials from the National Labor Relations Board are conducting the official count. The UAW, which has representatives in the room where the count is happening, said ballots counted so far were 1300-399 in favor of the union. There are approximately 4,300 workers eligible to vote at the factory.

Dozens of VW workers wearing red “Future UAW Member” t-shirts cheered as the vote tally came in at a watch party.

Final results expected around 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT on Saturday).

"Everybody else is watching," said Isaac Meadows, a worker at the VW plant, who said he voted in support of the union. "This is going to change the labor landscape across the country."

Although the UAW narrowly lost votes at the same plant in 2014 and 2019, this year's vote has been preceded by surging public support for unions and successful contract negotiations last year with the Big Three automakers.

The UAW has said it sets votes in motion once 70% of eligible workers at a plant have signed cards supporting unionization.

While success for the UAW is widely expected to bolster unionizing momentum at other factories, anti-union sentiment is entrenched in many parts of the U.S. South. Earlier this week, Republican governors in six southern states including Tennessee spoke out in opposition to the union drive.

"We're going through an unusual, even unprecedented period when it comes to unions more generally and VW is at the epicenter of that right now," said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the last several months, a group of volunteer workers at the plant, which produces the electric ID.4 SUV and other vehicles, held organizing meetings to drum up support, with occasional guidance and assistance from Detroit's UAW officials.

Some of the plant's employees have countered that joining the UAW could weaken workers' job security in the future.

Workers on both sides agree that the plant's campus has been quiet as ballots were cast, in contrast to previous years when scores of union supporters and opponents - both employees and members of the wider community - lined the driveway.

On Friday afternoon, workers at the plant said those supporting the union wore red T-shirts saying "Stand Up, UAW" while those against donned white ones emblazoned "Still no UAW," but both sides removed the shirts before entering the plant due to company rules. The workers said people in the plant are excited and nervous as the voting nears its end.

In a 12-page pamphlet created by the UAW, the union laid out its argument for how the workers would benefit.

"Volkswagen made $75 billion in profit in the past three years," Fain said in the handout. "They can afford to pay you your fair share in wages, benefits and union protections."

"How do I know? Because every single Volkswagen autoworker in the world is a union member ... except here in Chattanooga," he added.

VW has said it has taken a neutral position on the vote at its only non-union factory globally. The UAW has previously represented VW workers at a Pennsylvania plant that built Rabbit cars before it closed in 1988.

For decades, the union has struck out at southern auto plants. In addition to two narrow losses at VW previously, it sustained three more significant misses at southern factories owned by Nissan (TYO: 7201 ), the last in 2017 in Mississippi.

The broader labor movement has since gone through somewhat of a renaissance, with a record number of workers across various industries going on strike last year.

© Reuters. A view of the Volkswagen plant where workers are voting on whether to join the United Auto Workers union (UAW), in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., April 18, 2024  REUTERS/Nora Eckert

Last autumn U.S. President Joe Biden walked picket lines outside Detroit, where the union scored double-digit percentage raises as well as cost-of-living increases from General Motors (NYSE: GM ), Ford Motor (NYSE: F ) and Stellantis. That sparked a wave of wage hikes by nonunion automakers that some analysts said were designed to keep out unions.

A Mercedes plant in Alabama, at which a majority of workers have signed cards indicating they support unionization, will be the next facility to hold a UAW election, the week of May 13.

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