United Auto Workers button

A worker displays a United Auto Workers button in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 10, 2024.

(Photo: Kevin Wurm for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'A Big, Big Deal': Chattanooga Volkswagen Workers Begin Voting in Key Union Election

"Looking back, you could see this being the first domino in something that changes the entire South," said one labor journalist.

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee began voting Wednesday on whether to join the United Auto Workers, a closely watched election seen as a critical test for the emboldened union's ability to organize in the U.S. South.

The election kicked off a month after workers at the Chattanooga plant filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) formally requesting an election to join the UAW, which secured record-breaking contracts at the Big Three U.S. automakers last year after a historic six-week strike.

Following the hard-fought contract victories, the UAW launched what's been described as the largest union organizing drive in modern U.S. history, targeting nonunion car manufacturers such as Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

The Chattanooga election marks the third time in a decade that the UAW has tried to organize the Volkswagen plant, which currently has around 4,300 workers. Voting concludes on Friday.

"This election is a big, big deal—probably the most important union election that this country has seen in years," labor journalist Hamilton Nolan said in a Democracy Now! appearance on Wednesday. "Looking back, you could see this being the first domino in something that changes the entire South."

Chattanooga workers voiced confidence that this election will be different than 2014 and 2019, when Volkswagen employees voted against joining the UAW by narrow margins.

"We're going to win," Lisa Elliott, a quality control worker at Volkswagen, toldThe Guardian's Steven Greenhouse. "We have the momentum. I know this will be a historic event."

In addition to the Chattanooga effort, the UAW is trying to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in Vance, Alabama. Earlier this month, a supermajority of Mercedes workers in Vance submitted a petition to the NLRB requesting an election to join the UAW.

UAW's organizing efforts have drawn national attention—and ire from anti-union politicians, including the Republican governors of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and other states in the U.S. South.

Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, told Greenhouse that "a victory at Volkswagen would make a victory at Mercedes much more likely."

"Victories at both Volkswagen and Mercedes would be nothing less than an earthquake," McCartin added. "This would be the biggest breakthrough in private-sector organizing in decades. It would mean that the anti-union citadel [in the South] that has repulsed effort after organizing effort has been breached."

University of California, Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken echoed that assessment in an interview with The New York Times.

"It would be a revolution for the UAW and for the auto industry," Shaiken said of a UAW win. "It would break the glass ceiling for unions in the South, and would mean more purchasing power for working-class people in that region."

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