United Auto Workers Lose Second Union Vote in Tennessee VW Plant

Workers at the only Volkswagen factory in the United States eked out a win this week by shutting down the most recent effort of the United Auto Workers to organize.  Late on Friday, hourly employees at the Chattanooga, TN plant voted 52 percent against the union, squeezing out slightly more than a similar vote five years ago; a vote which the workers lost.  

This time around, though, more than 1,600 workers took part in the voting, with nearly 100 percent of the cohort eligible for such activity.

The vote is a major incident in the UAW’s effort to reverse several years of employment decline, and hoping to gain more influence in the US auto industry. 

Now, if the union had won this vote, it would have certainly been a historic event.  VW, after all, is just one of many foreign-based global automakers who own factories that produce almost half of all the cars built in the United States. Of course, none of these 31 foreign-owned plants have ever established a union. And, because of that, workers at these plants tend to be paid notably less than workers who belong to United Auto Workers.

For example, the average worker at the Volkswagen plant (in Tennessee) make about $21 per hour.  Those who work at a unionized plant make around $28 per hour.

But while UAW members are paid more than other workers, their membership is in decline.  In the 1980s, United Auto Workers represented more than one million workers across auto assembly plants.  Today, UAW only represents 155,000 members across General Motors, Ford, and Flat Chrysler.  Thanks to plant closings, automation, and exporting of labor to Mexico, US production is having a very hard time competing with the growing presence of foreign automakers. 

Volkswagen is among these foreign automakers, of course. So unionizing the plant would have been a smart play for UAW.  However, the Chattanooga plant is particularly important because VW’s board of directors is also a member of the German autoworkers union; which would have positioned this plant’s union efforts to transition into other plants. Globally, there are more than 100 VW plants with union-represented workers (but not in China or the Chattanooga plant).