May 27, 2024

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Volkswagen workers in Tennessee vote to unionize

Volkswagen workers in Tennessee vote to unionize

In a historic victory for organized labor, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers union, becoming the first non-union auto plant in a Southern state to do so.

The company said in a statement Late Friday, the union won 2,628 votes, against 985 against, in a three-day election. Two previous UAW bids to organize the Chattanooga plant over the past 10 years were narrowly rejected.

The result was a major advance for the labor movement in a region where anti-union sentiment had been strong for decades. It comes six months after the UAW won record wage gains and improved benefits in negotiations with Detroit automakers.

For more than 80 years, the UAW has represented workers employed by General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis, which produces Chrysler, Jeep, Ram and Dodge, and has organized some heavy-duty truck and bus plants in the South.

But the union has failed in previous attempts to organize any of the 20 auto plants owned by other companies across a region stretching from South Carolina to Texas and as far north as Ohio and Indiana.

With the win in Chattanooga, the UAW will shift its focus to other southern plants. Voting will take place in mid-May at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa. The UAW hopes to organize six or more plants within the next two years.

“Tonight, you all have taken a giant, historic step,” UAW President Sean Fine said at a celebratory rally in Chattanooga. “Tonight we celebrate this historic moment in the history of our nation and our union. Let’s get there and go to work and win more for the working class of this nation.”

The UAW's string of victories could have profound effects on Southern auto workers and the broader auto industry. Non-union auto workers typically earn much lower wages than workers at plants represented by the UAW, and collective bargaining can bring them significant increases in wages, benefits and job security.

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“VW workers will have an opportunity for better wages and working conditions under a collective bargaining agreement,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s College of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They'll have a lot of job protections under a union contract that they don't have now.”

At GM, Ford and Stellantis, any layoffs must be planned with advance notice to the union, and workers receive supplemental unemployment benefits. Non-union plants do not have to take such measures.

A large UAW presence in the South would also upset the auto scene as UAW contracts for General Motors, Ford and Stellantis have left them with higher labor costs than non-union competitors such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Tesla and Hyundai.

“This is a watershed moment for the industry,” said Harley Chaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the UAW for more than three decades. “It sets an example that will resonate throughout the industry, and in other industries where there are large numbers of non-union workers.”

The union said the UAW's success in negotiations with the Big Three in the fall led to increased interest among Southern autoworkers in organizing their own plants, and prompted the UAW to launch a $40 million effort to support them.

Volkswagen workers who voted for UAW representation said they hoped the union would help them get higher wages and paid time off. The Chattanooga plant currently pays a top wage of about $35 an hour, compared to the top wage of more than $40 an hour that General Motors, Ford and Stellantis now pay to UAW workers.

UAW contracts also provide health care coverage paid for almost entirely by companies, large profit-sharing bonuses, cost-of-living adjustments to insulate workers from inflation and generous retirement programs.

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Among those who voted for the UAW in Chattanooga was Tony Akridge, 48, who is in his second year at the Volkswagen plant and works on engines and transmissions on the night shift. He said his $23 an hour wage exceeded what he had earned in previous jobs, but he voted for the UAW in hopes the union would help improve workers' living standards.

“It gives us a better chance,” Mr Akridge said. “They pay us a good amount, but it's not good enough to cover the things they need to do. Referring to the rising cost of living, he added that the union “will get better benefits in that regard, making life a little easier.”

Others are counting on UAW representation to bring in more paid leave. Most VW workers must either take unpaid leave when the plant is closed for the summer and during the holidays, or use paid leave to cover those periods. If they did, many of them would only have a few days left to cover any sick days or family leave for the rest of the year, workers said.

“We're forced to use our PTO a lot instead of using it on our own terms sometimes,” said Craig Jackson, 56, who voted for the union.

At Detroit automakers, UAW workers get up to five weeks vacation and 19 paid vacations, and are allowed two weeks of parental leave.

Workers who opposed the union at Volkswagen said they were unsure what gains the UAW could bring them.

“You don't really have any kind of guarantee with them,” said Darrell Belcher, 54, who has worked on the assembly hall for 13 years and voted against the UAW in the plant's previous two elections. “I'm not saying we won't gain anything, but we'll probably lose something just by having it.”

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As voting was about to begin, the governors of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas – all Republicans – Issue a statement on Tuesday, saying unionizing would jeopardize auto jobs in their states.

“We want to keep good-paying jobs and continue to grow the American auto manufacturing sector here,” the governors said. “A successful union campaign will stop this growth in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers.”

But even some VW workers who opposed the UAW said they didn't believe union representation would jeopardize the Chattanooga plant. “I don't feel like the plant is going to leave Chattanooga or the South,” said Cody Rose, 34, who has worked at the plant for 13 years and works in auto body production. “Volkswagen has invested a lot in this area.”

The Chattanooga plant opened in 2011 and employs 5,500 people, about 4,300 of whom are eligible to vote in union elections. The factory produces the Volkswagen Atlas, a large sports car, and the ID.4 electric car. It is the only Volkswagen plant in the United States, and was the only Volkswagen plant in the world that was not unionized.

The UAW had some advantages in winning support at Volkswagen. Its efforts have been supported by IG Metall, the powerful union that represents auto workers in Germany. German companies also have a strong tradition of giving workers a voice. Under German law, worker representatives must occupy half the seats on the company's supervisory board, which is equivalent to the board of directors.

The UAW can now turn its attention to the Mercedes plant in Alabama, which employs about 6,100 people. The union tried to organize this factory once before, but the efforts failed before the vote.

Jimmy McGee Contributed to reports.