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Tennessee Volkswagen Workers Vote to Join UAW in “Historic Victory”

"Even though the deck is stacked against us, momentum is on our side, and we're winning," said one union leader.

People celebrate after the United Auto Workers (UAW) received enough votes to form a union for Volkswagen workers at a UAW vote watch party on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, became the first Southern autoworkers not employed by one of the Big Three car manufacturers to win a union Friday night when they voted to join the United Auto Workers by a “landslide” majority.

This is the first major victory for the UAW after it launched the biggest organizing drive in modern U.S. history on the heels of its “stand up strike” that secured historic contracts with the Big Three in fall 2023.

“Many of the talking heads and the pundits have said to me repeatedly before we announced this campaign, ‘You can’t win in the South,'” UAW president Shawn Fain told the victorious workers in a video shared by UAW. “They said Southern workers aren’t ready for it. They said non-union autoworkers didn’t have it in them. But you all said, ‘Watch this!’ And you all moved a mountain.”

According to the UAW’s real-time results, the vote tally now stands at 2,628 — or 73% — yes to 985 — or 27% — no. Voting at the around 4,300-worker plant began Wednesday.

The Chattanooga workers announced their current union drive in December 2023. Friday’s victory follows two failed unionization attempts at the plant in 2014 and 2019.

“We saw the big contract that UAW workers won at the Big Three and that got everybody talking,” Zachary Costello, a trainer in VW’s proficiency room, said in a statement. “You see the pay, the benefits, the rights UAW members have on the job, and you see how that would change your life. That’s why we voted overwhelmingly for the union. Once people see the difference a union makes, there’s no way to stop them.”

The union’s win comes despite the opposition of Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

“Today, I joined fellow governors in opposing the UAW’s unionization campaign,” Lee said on social media Tuesday. “We want to keep good-paying jobs and continue to grow the American auto manufacturing sector. A successful unionization drive will stop this growth in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers.”

However, Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones (D-52) celebrated the win.

“Watching history tonight in Chattanooga, as Volkswagen workers voted in a landslide to join the UAW,” he wrote on social media Friday night. “Despite pressure from Gov. Lee, this is the first auto plant in the South to unionize since the 1940s. This incredible victory for labor will transform Tennessee and the South!”

Other national labor leaders and progressive politicians also congratulated the Chattanooga workers.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, said the win “shows what we already know — workers in every part of this country want the freedom to join a union, and when we stand together, we have tremendous power. Even though the deck is stacked against us, momentum is on our side, and we’re winning.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said: “This is a huge victory not only for UAW workers at Volkswagen, but for every worker in America. The tide is turning. Workers all across the country, even in our most conservative states, are sick and tired of corporate greed and are demanding economic justice.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the results “an utterly historic victory for the working class.”

“Tennessee is shining bright tonight,” she wrote on social media Friday. “We are in a new era. Congratulations to the courageous workers in Chattanooga and the entire UAW. Absolutely heroic. Solidarity IS the strategy — across the South, and all over the country.”

More Perfect Union said the victory would “change the auto industry, and the future of American labor,” and the campaign organizers themselves are aware of the importance of what they’ve accomplished.

“We understand that the world’s watching us,” worker Isaac Meadows, who has been at the plant for one year, told More Perfect Union. “You know there’s a labor movement in this country, you know, we’re poised to be the first domino of many to fall.”

Worker Kelcey Smith, who has also been at the plant for one year, added, “I think it’s a great push for the entire South, and people will follow suit.”

The next domino to fall could be the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, where a UAW election is scheduled from May 13-17. All told, more than 10,000 non-union car makers have signed union cards since the UAW launched its historic organizing drive.

For the Chattanooga workers, meanwhile, their next big fight will be to secure their first union-negotiated contract.

“The real fight begins now,” Fain told cheering workers. “The real fight is getting your fair share. The real fight is the fight to get more time with your families. The real fight is the fight for our union contract.”

“And I can guarantee you one thing,” Fain continued, “this international unionist leadership, this membership all over this nation has your back in this fight.”