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In Tennessee, Volkswagen workers vote to join UAW in a historic win for the union

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Volkswagen workers at a plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., have voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers. It is a historic win for the UAW as it pushes to organize across the South. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom spent the night at an election result watch party with workers and joins us now from Chattanooga. Stephan, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Must have been a happy mood at the party.

BISAHA: Yeah, it really leaned into the party side of election watch party. From the very beginning, there was a lot of excitement in the air, along with some tension and anxiety over how it was going to go. That quickly broke when the ballot counting started coming in Friday night 'cause union - they grabbed onto a quick lead and held on to it by a wide margin the whole time. Robert Crump’s been at Volkswagen for 12 years, and he voted for the union in two previous elections that both failed.

So how does it feel to finally be a union member?

ROBERT CRUMP: A sense of security, a sense of relief. Yeah, it feels really, really good. More of a surreal moment.

BISAHA: By the end of the night, about 73% of the votes were in favor of the union.

SIMON: What has Volkswagen's reaction been?

BISAHA: That was one of the big questions last night. Would Volkswagen fight this union election, this win? This is the only Volkswagen plant in the world without some form of worker representation. So working with unions is the norm. But at the same time, they've pushed back at past attempts to unionize this facility. This time around, workers say Volkswagen has been pretty neutral. And shortly after the count ended, workers were all opening up their phones to read this email from Volkswagen, noting that, yes, workers had voted to unionize and thanking workers for their vote. So still seemingly pretty neutral. But the real test is going to be seeing how negotiations go for the first contract.

SIMON: And what's next for the UAW beyond this plant there in Chattanooga?

BISAHA: Well, UAW's goal is recruiting nonunionized workers, mostly in the South. And this win really builds a ton of momentum for that. And importantly, it's proof that it's possible to even do this in the South. Here's UAW President Shawn Fain at the watch party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: They said Southern workers aren't ready for it.

(BOOING)

FAIN: They said nonunion autoworkers didn't have it in them.

(BOOING)

FAIN: But you all said, watch this.

(CHEERING)

BISAHA: Next month, there's going to be another union vote at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, and there's lots of similarities to this plant. Both are large, with several thousand workers. And workers I talked to at Mercedes are also pretty fired up. The UAW said well more than a majority of workers at Mercedes signed union cards and use similar language when describing this Volkswagen plant, where again, they won.

SIMON: How are state and local leaders reacting?

BISAHA: We haven't heard much yet. But earlier this week, we had six Southern governors kind of sent out this joint statement speaking out against the union and really sending out this warning message saying that they fear unionizing could cost the South jobs.

SIMON: Gulf State Newsroom senior reporter Stephan Bisaha. Stephan, thanks so much for being with us.

BISAHA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Stephan Bisaha
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