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UAW Sets Southern Expansion Goals Post-Tennessee Volkswagen Plant Victory

Before the vote for unionization, the Tennessee plant was the only Volkswagen plant in the world that did not have worker representation.

The United Auto Workers is hopeful to spread its influence throughout the South, a region that has been historically hostile to unions. Why the optimism? For the first time, the union group won an election vote in an assembly plant located in the South run by a foreign automotive company. 

As U.S. News & World Report reports, the UAW won its election with 73% of the vote after being stonewalled in 2014 and 2019. Notably, before the vote, the plant was the only Volkswagen plant in the world that did not have worker representation, that is, union representation.

After the historic win, UAW President Shawn Fein celebrated with organizers in Tennessee, telling the group, “We’re going to carry this fight on to Mercedes and everywhere else.” 

The Mercedes fight Fein referred to is two Mercedes-Benz plants located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which experts like Harry Katz, a labor relations professor at Cornell University, believes it will be more difficult to unionize because it is deeper in the South than Tennessee. 

“They are going to have a much harder road in work sites where they are going to face aggressive management resistance and even community resistance than they faced in Chattanooga,” Katz told U.S. News & World Report. “VW management did not aggressively seek to avoid unionization. Mercedes is going to be a good test. It’s the deeper South.”

To Katz’s point, already six Southern governors had already warned workers against joining UAW, including Alabama’s Gov. Kay Ivey. The other governors who signed onto the joint statement were Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. 

Governors in the South, as NPR reports, often use incentives to lure foreign automakers to the region and provided some assurances that they wouldn’t have to deal with UAW unless they chose to.

Mostly, those auto worker jobs had paid well enough in the past that workers have traditionally felt a union doesn’t really benefit them, but with the UAW’s $40 million investment into the South, that sentiment may be changing. Quinton North, a Black worker at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, said that Fein’s leadership is a reason he switched his vote from no to yes. “He’s (Fein) really showed what he is—he’s for the workers.”

President Joe Biden also weighed in on the attempts of the Republican governors to use fear-mongering tactics, releasing a statement affirming the right of American workers to choose whether or not a union represents their best interests.

“Let me be clear to the Republican governors that tried to undermine this vote: there is nothing to fear from American workers using their voice and their legal right to form a union if they so choose.”