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Third time is charm for UAW in organizing drive at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, TN.

UAW Wins at VW Chattanooga, Sets Sights on Mercedes-Benz Alabama

The May vote at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL, is the next major test of the UAW’s campaign to organize the 150,000 workers employed by European and Asian carmakers located in the Deep South.

Hourly employees at Volkswagen of America’s complex in Chattanooga, TN, vote by a 73% margin to join the UAW, giving the union its first victory in its years-long effort to organize a foreign-owned auto plant in the southeastern U.S.

The tally from the election held April 17-19 showed 2,628 or 73%, voted for UAW representation while 985, or 27%, cast “no” votes in the election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Some 3,613 votes were cast, which is 83.5 percent of employees eligible to vote. 

“We will await certification of the results by the NLRB,” VW says in a brief statement announcing the vote results. “Volkswagen thanks its Chattanooga workers for voting in this election.”

While the election sets the stage for contract negotiations between VW and the UAW for the first time ever, the union now is setting its sights on the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL, where the NLRB will oversee an election set for May 13-17. It is the next next major test of the UAW’s campaign to organize the 150,000 workers employed by European and Asian carmakers located in the Deep South.

Mercedes-Benz Vance AL

Assembly line at Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, AL.

With five different automakers building SUVs, EVs, pickup trucks, CUVs and passenger cars, Alabama is one of the linchpins of the region’s auto industry. Besides the big Mercedes-Benz complex, the state is also home to operations of Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Mazda.

In the past, the UAW’s approach to organizing in the state was low-key, but it did succeed in organizing a plant owned by German Tier 1 supplier ZF following a strike last fall that was overshadowed by the larger and more dramatic “stand-up” strikes against Detroit’s three automakers. The union, while it made some inroads at Mercedes-Benz, has never asked the NLRB for an election.

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI), which has employed American-style union-avoidance tactics, is bracing for the fight.

“MBUSI fully respects our Team Members’ choice whether to unionize and we look forward to participating in the election process to ensure every Team Member has a chance to cast their own secret-ballot vote, as well as having access to the information necessary to make an informed choice,” the automaker says. 

In an effort to minimize management interference in the upcoming election, the UAW is taking the unusual step of using a new German law to challenge the conduct of MBUSI management in court in Germany.

The UAW alleges Mercedes-Benz’s aggressive anti-union campaign against auto workers in Alabama is a “clear human rights violation” under the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains. If found guilty, Mercedes-Benz faces billions in penalties, including significant fines and bans on government contracts.

The UAW’s charges are an important early test of the act, which took effect Jan. 1, 2023, and applies to German-headquartered firms with more than 1,000 employees. The UAW says it is the first American union to file charges under the act, which is also known by its German acronym LkSG.

The new German law sets standards for global supply chains that German-based firms must adhere to and prohibits companies from disregarding workers’ rights to form trade unions.

In the U.S., the UAW also is asking the NLRB to enjoin or prohibit Mercedes-Benz from using an anti-union campaign to discourage UAW representation.

“There has been more momentum for the UAW in the past year than for the last 10 years,” says Arthur Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University. The big gains made in the Detroit Three contracts and the 75%-80% positive views of the UAW in the strikes “is making (union President) Shawn Fain one of the most important union leaders in the country.”

Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who has studied the growth of the auto industry in the South, says state and local politicians are eager to block inroads by the UAW.

“It’s no surprise that politicians in Alabama and Tennessee are speaking out against the UAW. They will frame it in terms of keeping the state attractive for new investment. It may be less effective at VW Chattanooga this time because it’s happened before.”

According to the UAW, efforts to organize production workers at Chattanooga were narrowly defeated in 2014 and 2019 following anti-union campaigns led by the National Right to Work Foundation, the local Chamber of Commerce and other elements of Tennessee’s business community and the state’s Republican political establishment.

Even then the UAW still won an election among the plant’s skilled-trades employees. But Volkswagen, with support from an NLRB stocked with appointees of Republican President Donald Trump, refused to bargain with what it described as “splinter” union, which chose to withdraw unfair labor practice charges against VW in return for the second plant-wide vote in 2019.

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