Big labor bet: push for unionization of all US auto plants.


When Shawn Fain, president of the United Automobile Workers union, announced the agreement which ended six weeks of strikes at Ford Motor in the fall, framed it as part of a longer campaign. Next, he declared, would be the task of organizing non-union plants across the country.

“One of our biggest goals after this historic contract victory is to organize ourselves like we have never done before,” he said at the time. “When we return to the negotiating table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three. It will be the Big Five or the Big Six.”

Four months later, the first test of that strategy has been revealed, and it features a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to the union, more than half of the more than 4,000 eligible workers have signed cards indicating their support for a union. Workers say they have done so because they want higher wages, more paid time off and more generous health benefits, and because recent strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis persuaded them that a union can help win these concessions.

“The Big Three had their big campaign, their big strike and vote, and new contracts; we paid a lot of attention to that,” said Yolanda Peoples, who has worked at the Volkswagen plant for almost 13 years.

The Volkswagen plant announced an 11 percent wage increase shortly after the Big Three strikes. The increase raised the maximum hourly wage for production workers to $32.40, but the comparable wage for Detroit automakers will exceed $40 at the end of the new contracts. (Volkswagen said the pay adjustment was part of an annual review.)

Unions need a simple majority vote to win, but the UAW says it won’t run for office at the Chattanooga plant until 70 percent of the plant’s workers have signed their cards and workers have formed an organizing committee. extensive, which union leaders expect in the next month.

The caution reflects the UAW’s experience in the South, where previous campaigns fell short.

But the stakes may be even higher this time given the union’s investment in organizing several plants at once, including a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama, where more than 50 percent of workers have signed cards, and a Hyundai plant in Alabama, where the union has cards for more than 30 percent of the workers.

Last week, the union said it was also allocating $40 million to organize auto and battery workers through 2026, far exceeding its previous budget for such efforts, according to union spokesman Jonah Furman. He suggested that time was of the essence.

“In the coming years, the electric vehicle battery industry is expected to add tens of thousands of jobs across the country, and new standards are being set as the industry comes online,” the union said in its announcement. financing.

If the union wins in Chattanooga, said Joshua Murray, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied the auto industry’s response to unionization, it could quickly replicate the victory at other plants, as it did during a wave of unionization in the years 1930.

“Many times, the failure to unionize is not because workers are against being in a union, but because they are not convinced they can win,” Dr. Murray said. “Showing that they can win is a big accomplishment to get workers who weren’t excited about this to be excited about it.”

A loss in Chattanooga, Dr. Murray said, could undermine employee confidence and encourage management at other automakers to resist.

Other analysts, such as Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at research firm AutoForecast Solutions, predicted that Tesla would be a particular challenge. “The boss of Tesla is Elon Musk and he is going to fight against change,” Fiorani said.

The union appears to be benefiting from a resurgence of interest in organizing after a lull during Donald J. Trump’s presidency and the onset of the pandemic. Last year, unions won more than 1,225 elections, the most in at least a decade, according to the National Labor Relations Board. They lost around 500.

Surveys show that younger workers are especially supportive and appear to be helping drive the auto industry’s recent organizing. “We let them know, ‘You’re making a good salary for your age, but this could be better,’” said Ronald Terry, a worker involved in the organization at the Hyundai plant in Alabama.

Younger workers at the Volkswagen plant also express frustration over the paid time off they accumulate: 12 or 13 days during their first two years of employment, several of which they must use during plant closures if they want to get paid.

When asked about the complaints, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company understood time off was a major issue and had recently announced an increase in unpaid time off for emergencies.

The company said last month that its wages in Chattanooga had risen at nearly double the rate of inflation since 2013, and that the average production worker would earn more than $60,000 this year before bonuses or overtime and would pay less than $2,000 in premiums to cover more than 80 percent of health care costs.

The union sought a vote in Chattanooga in 2014 and faced no opposition from the company, whose plants around the world are mostly unionized. But the effort failed amid pressure from state Republican leaders, who suggested a union would jeopardize the plant’s expansion.

As workers complained about understaffing, high injury rates and last-minute overtime, the UAW tried again in 2019. But pleas followed from Tennessee’s governor and the plant’s original CEO, who said there was returned to his previous position to address workers’ concerns. to disable support. The union narrowly lost.

This time, the union seems determined to minimize the effect of such a reaction.

The union wants to recruit a volunteer leader for every line on every shift at the plant — more than 125 in total, by the union’s count. That way, organizers say, volunteers can quickly respond to company rumors or talking points that their co-workers encounter.

“If there’s not someone continuing that conversation, we’ve seen some pushback in some smaller areas,” said Isaac Meadows, a worker involved in the organizing.

He attributed the pushback to the influence of outside groups and rumors from workers’ friends and family that a union would discourage employers from locating in Tennessee.

Gerald McCormick, a Republican who as majority leader of the state House of Representatives opposed the union during the 2014 vote, said Republicans might be concerned about the union supporting left-wing causes in Tennessee if it gained a foothold there.

“They don’t want to do them any favors,” he said, referring to the state’s Republican leaders, who he predicted would again oppose the union drive.

As in 2019, the response of employers can be crucial. The Volkswagen brand seems to remain strong in the United States and somewhat ahead of the transition to electric vehicles.

More than 11 percent of Volkswagen’s U.S. sales last year came from electric vehicles, specifically the ID.4, a compact sport utility vehicle built in Chattanooga. That figure was higher than the overall 9.4 percent share of plug-in vehicles in the U.S. market, according to BloombergNEF, an energy research firm.

A Volkswagen official said during a tour of the plant that about a third of its production this year would likely be ID.4s, and that the proportion could double within a decade.

If that happens, the plant may be relatively well positioned to absorb higher labor costs. Corey Cantor, an electric vehicle analyst at BloombergNEF, said continued battery innovation, along with the efficiency of larger-scale battery production, could offset cost increases associated with unionization.

But union presence could complicate ramping up electric vehicle production, said Fiorani of AutoForecast Solutions, if the union resists the decline in workers per car that may accompany the change. However, he noted that companies that made their own batteries could reassign those workers rather than lay them off.

Pablo Di Si, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said in a statement that the plant had already added jobs in battery assembly and engineering.

In a meeting with reporters last month, a Volkswagen official said the company would remain neutral during an election campaign, but that “neutral does not mean silence; it means impartial to what employees decide.”

The official added that the company will correct misinformation, which it accuses the union of spreading, about wages and working conditions at the plant. (Companies that reach neutrality agreements with unions usually do not intervene in this way.)

Meadows, the union supporter, said managers had communicated skepticism sometimes in subtle ways, such as removing union brochures from lunch tables.

“Someone put out a couple of business cards for a lawn services company and we had some material on the same table,” Meadows recalled. “Our materials disappeared and the others did not.”

Volkswagen said the cleaning of the tables was governed by “clear policies.”

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