Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will decide this week whether to join the United Auto Workers and start bargaining for a contract, in an election that relitigates one of the highest-profile labor fights in years and gives the union a shot at redemption.
Production workers will be casting ballots again after the UAW lost a heartbreaker in 2014, when the plant’s employees narrowly rejected unionization by a vote of 712 to 626. The new election, slated for Wednesday through Friday, gives the UAW another chance to fulfill its long-sought goal of unionizing a foreign automaker’s plant in the U.S. South.
If the union wins, it will represent some 1,700 additional workers in an area of the country known for its resistance ― and sometimes outright hostility ― to collective bargaining. If the UAW loses, it will mean another in a string of painful and sometimes lopsided defeats for unions seeking to make inroads in manufacturing facilities in Southern states.
Both the “yes” and “no” camps have been running get-out-the-vote operations during shift changes at the Chattanooga plant. And just like in 2014, business-friendly Republican politicians in Tennessee have weighed in, with Gov. Bill Lee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn and the county mayor all urging workers to vote against unionizing.
Volkswagen has said publicly that it’s remaining neutral during the campaign. However, the German automaker successfully petitioned to have the election delayed and, in a letter obtained by Payday Report, told employees that it would prefer to have a “direct” dialogue with its workforce.
“We respect the right of our employees to decide whether they wish to join a union or not,” Amanda Plecas, a spokeswoman for the plant, said in an email to HuffPost. “[A]ll employees maintain their rights to inform and discuss with each other ― for or against the union ― in non-working areas during non-working time.”
Annette Stallion, a 60-year-old employee in the plant’s logistics department, said she was a “yes” vote in the 2014 election and has moved even further in the union’s direction since then.
“I was a supporter but not as solid as I am now,” said Stallion, who has been at the plant for more than eight years. “Since 2014, I’ve seen more workplace injuries and the way workers are treated after getting their treatment. They’re back into the same positions that caused the injuries.”
“Do I think there’s work to be done? Of course,” countered Brandi Gengler, a firm “no” vote who has been at the plant just as long as Stallion. But Gengler, who works in the assembly department, said she has “an excellent benefit package” and fears it might be put on the negotiating table. “I think we have the best of everything and I’m worried that to get something you have to give something.”
The UAW has been trying for years to unionize a foreign-owned “transplant” in the South, where automakers have taken advantage of the lower wages relative to unionized facilities in the Midwest. The union successfully organized a smaller group of Volkswagen workers after the 2014 defeat, but this week’s election represents its latest shot at “wall to wall” representation inside the plant.
“We should have some type of compensation [equal to] the hard work that we do.”
If the UAW can organize more workers in the South, that would increase its leverage when bargaining with all automakers, including in Detroit. The Big Three ― Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler ― like to point to the lower pay at foreign manufacturers when arguing that they can’t improve wages or benefits for UAW members.
“Their bargaining power was very strong when they represented a larger share of the automaker workforce,” said Kristin Dziczek, an expert in auto industry labor at the Center for Automotive Research. “Now international automakers are making almost half of all the vehicles made in the U.S. That means a lot of the workers are working in non-union factories.”
Dziczek noted that the Chattanooga vote is coming just before the union heads into negotiations with the Big Three this summer.
“A win at Volkswagen would put some wind in their sails,” she said.
The workers at the Volkswagen plant start out at $15.50 per hour and after several years earn a top rate of $23.50, which equates to an annual salary of around $49,000, excluding any overtime. That’s good money for Chattanooga but not necessarily for auto industry work.
Stallion has been “topped out” for about four years. She believes that both the top rate and the starting wage should be higher and that they would be if the workers had a union.
“When we signed on, we knew there is nothing in Chattanooga to prepare you for car assembly. So the work in and of itself is hard,” she said. “At the end of the day, we should have some type of compensation [equal to] the hard work that we do.”
Volkswagen almost seemed to be rooting for the union during the 2014 organizing effort. The company hoped to create a German-style works council inside the plant, which labor law experts said would require a unionized workforce in order to be legal. But that openness to a union seemed to diminish after the company’s emissions scandal. After the smaller group of maintenance workers at the plant voted for a union, Volkswagen disputed its legitimacy.
Tennessee’s conservative politicians, on the other hand, haven’t changed their stance at all. In 2014, then-Sen. Bob Corker (R) and other lawmakers inserted themselves into the election campaign, claiming that future investments at the plant hinged on rejection of the union. The meddling by lawmakers and right-wing groups infuriated the UAW, which said the vote had been tainted.
This time around, Volkswagen invited Lee, the governor, to speak to workers at the plant ― a speech it did not publicize. But in a recording of the talk, which was published by Labor Notes, Lee makes clear to employees where he stands on the union question: “When I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.”
His remarks were met with both applause and boos.
Gengler, the assembly worker, said that she looks forward to having the election behind her, however the results come in.
“You can’t complain if you don’t vote,” Gengler said. “We are one team and we have to go back in on Monday regardless of the outcome and we have to build cars.”