UAW Makes a Bold Southern Push


Adapted from GCADA Newsletter

Like Maj. Gen. William Sherman leading the Union Army on its famous march to Sea through Georgia, the United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign to unionize as many as 150,000 auto manufacturing employees at a dozen different factories located in southern right-to-work states got off to a productive start last week when 4,000 workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga, Tenn., plant voted for UAW representation. It was the plant's third vote in the past 10 years after measures were narrowly rejected in 2019 and 2014.

This time, 73 percent of workers, potentially energized by the results of strikes against The Big Three this past fall, voted to join the UAW ranks. “It was a big vote, symbolically and substantively,” said Jake Rosenfield, a sociologist who studies labor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Last fall's historic UAW victories were realized after a combined 45,000 strategically targeted workers walked out on each Big Three manufacturer during a six-week period. The successful maneuvers resulted in a 25 percent worker pay increase through four years as well as enhancements in retirement benefits and other perks. At the time, a clearly-emboldened UAW President Shawn Fain proclaimed, “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t be with the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six.”

Wins among the Big Three motivated several non-union manufacturers, demonstrating a clear understanding of a newly-created labor landscape, to proactively enact wage increases obviously intended to prevent their workforces from organizing.

A lot was at stake in the South, where right-to-work laws and other sweeteners had attracted significant automotive manufacturing expansion that had created well-paying jobs during the past two decades.

Earlier this spring governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee issued a joint letter opposing the union organization drive. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an excerpt reading, “Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.” The governors additionally projected union presences would further jeopardize their states’ automotive industry investments as well as the manufacturers' fiscal health.

WSJ reported the next southern unionization test would take place May 13-17 at the Woodstock, Ala., Mercedes-Benz facility near Tuscaloosa after 5,000 employees had signed enough authorization cards in March to produce an election. The New York Times (NYT) reported 30 percent of the workers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala. and the Toyota plant in Troy, Mo., had signed authorization cards to meet the requirement to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a UAW election. The same story further reported petitions had yet to be filed, which may have been either a strategic move or indicated the union did not believe it could garner enough votes to be victorious.

Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at the research firm AutoForecast Solutions, told NYT that the labor forces in the Japanese and South Korean manufacturers' southern facilities would be more difficult to organize because the manufacturers had worked to develop closer relationships with their workforces and had previously encountered strained relations with unions at home.

The next step in Chattanooga was to negotiate a UAW contract, which could have moved quickly or, as in many cases, could have dragged out for years. The real or perceived gains provided workers in the contract would probably have dictated the path forward. “If workers in Chattanooga got a great contract, a big raise, better health benefits, and then the same thing at Mercedes, there would have been a lot more good opportunities to win contracts in short order,” said Madeline Janis, co-executive director of Jobs to Move America.

Even in light of the Chattanooga victory, overall UAW ranks were down 70 percent since the 1970s, and about 150,000 of the UAW’s roughly 370,000 current members had been auto workers. Present union leadership had set lofty membership goals in an attempt to springboard off last fall's historic success, and, at least until now, efforts to organize at traditionally non-union facilities had failed.

We would have soon learned whether Fain’s pro-union messaging had further resonated among auto workers outside the traditional Midwest manufacturing belt. Following an encouraging start in Tennessee and, similar to Sherman, it looked as if Fain may indeed have found a way to lead the UAW to the sea.

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