VW workers in Tennessee vote to join UAW in historic win for Detroit union

Kelcey Smith displays UAW buttons in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 10, 2024. 

Kevin Wurm | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The United Auto Workers late-Friday said Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have overwhelmingly voted to join the union — marking a major milestone for the labor organization and its first successful organizing drive of an automaker outside of Detroit’s Big Three.

According to results posted by the UAW’s main lawyer, union organizing passed with 73% of the vote, or 2,628 workers, in support for the UAW, according to the post. A total of 3,620, or roughly 84%, of the more than 4,300 eligible VW workers voted in the election, the union said. Seven ballots were challenged and three were voided.

“In a historic victory, an overwhelming majority of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have voted to join the UAW,” the union said in a release Friday night before official results were released by the NLRB. “While votes continue to be tallied, the outcome is clear: Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga are the first Southern autoworkers outside of the Big Three to win their union.”

The NLRB still must certify the result, but barring any unexpected issues or challenges, the company is required to bargain in good faith with the union. The talks can be direct or go first through a mediator.

VW confirmed the UAW’s win in a release Friday night but offered little comment.

UAW leaders and supporters are expected to use the win as a launching point for the union’s unprecedented organizing campaign of 13 automakers in the U.S. following major contract wins last year with General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler parent Stellantis.

In this aerial view, a Volkswagen automobile assembly plant is seen on March 20, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images

UAW President Shawn Fain and others saw this week’s vote as the union’s best shot at organizing the VW plant following the strikes and record contracts at the Detroit automakers. Those agreements included significant wage increase, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments and other benefits.

The successful organizing drive comes days after six Republican governors of Southern states, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, released a joint statement condemning the UAW’s push to organize in their states.

“We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states. These jobs have become part of the fabric of the automotive manufacturing industry. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy — in fact, in this year already, all of the UAW automakers have announced layoffs,” the statement said.

The UAW previously failed to organize the Volkswagen plant in 2014 and 2019 as it faced greater outside political pressure and worker opposition. Workers rejected union membership by just 833 to 776 votes five years ago.

UAW President Shawn Fain greets members attending a rally in support of the labor union strike at the UAW Local 551 hall on the South Side on October 7, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

Jim Vondruska | Getty Images

The union will now set its sights on negotiating with VW. It will also look to an anticipated organizing vote of Mercedes-Benz workers at an SUV plant in Vance, Alabama.

Workers at the facility earlier this month filed NLRB paperwork for a formal election to join the UAW. The vote for 5,200 workers will occur from May 13 through May 17, the NLRB announced Thursday.

“The first thing you need to do to win is to believe that you can win,” Fain told Mercedes-Benz workers last month. “That this job can be better. That your life can be better. And that those things are worth fighting for. That is why we stand up. That’s why you’re here today. Because deep down, you believe it’s possible.”

Fain previously vowed to move beyond the Big Three and expand to the “Big Five or Big Six” by the time its four-and-a-half-year contracts with the Detroit automakers expire in 2028.

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