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Tennessee Volkswagen workers defy decades of union failures by voted to join the UAW

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Volkswagen assembly workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., made history over the weekend by voting to join the United Auto Workers. The vote defies decades of union failures in the South. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on why this is such a big deal in the South and what's next for the union.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Here are two things you need to know about this Volkswagen plant. First, it's huge. The plant pumped out around 175,000 SUVs last year and employs about 5,000 workers. And second, workers already voted against unionizing here twice, which is why people like Daniel Duncan were skeptical it could actually happen.

DANIEL DUNCAN: Well, I have held a union card since 1973. I know don't get yourself too high until the actual vote comes in.

(APPLAUSE)

BISAHA: Duncan does not work at the plant. He's a new transplant in Chattanooga. He's come to the union watch party because he understood it could make history. That's because there's been a wave of union campaigns in the South over the last 10 years - Nissan in Mississippi, Amazon in Alabama, at this Chattanooga plant twice. They all ended in loss after loss.

DUNCAN: I've done this off and on 51 years. You don't start smiling till it's done.

BISAHA: There's a smile creeping on your face as you say that.

DUNCAN: There's a little bit of a smile right now. But...

BISAHA: And while there were smiles at this watch party, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called the vote a mistake after two days of silence. Lee had openly campaigned against the union, warning it could cost Tennessee jobs. Now, there is a third thing to know about this plant. Out of over 100 Volkswagen plants in the world, this was the only one without worker representation.

DARIUSZ DABROWSKI: Dariusz Dabrowski, (speaking German).

BISAHA: It's why Dariusz Dabrowski came from Germany to this party. He's part of Volkswagen's work council, which represents workers in Volkswagen's board room.

DABROWSKI: (Through interpreter) So for basically forever - I mean 40, 50 years, you can call it forever - we've developed this Volkswagen culture.

BISAHA: A Volkswagen culture that works closely with labor groups. And this one plant in the South was the exception.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Woo (ph).

BISAHA: As the night went on, more and more yes votes kept coming in. And then with just 10 votes shy of a majority...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Ten more, 10 more, 10 more.

BISAHA: ...They broke the 50% mark with enough votes to declare victory for the union. Daniel Duncan finally stops holding back his smile.

DUNCAN: To do this in the South, to finally do it in the South, to do it in Tennessee, these people deserve a lot of credit.

BISAHA: The final count came in with 73% of votes in favor of the union - a clear, definitive win, one the UAW hope sends a message to other Southern autoworkers.

SHAWN FAIN: You guys are leading the way. We're going to carry this fight on to Mercedes and everywhere else.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

BISAHA: That was UAW President Shawn Fain referencing the upcoming vote at the Mercedes plant in Alabama just three weeks away.

JEREMY KIMBRELL: It's us. We're next. There's no doubt.

BISAHA: Jeremy Kimbrell works at that Mercedes plant, and he got the message from Tennessee.

KIMBRELL: Look what that was up there. Look what those Volkswagen workers did. They stuck together in a way that I think people felt was impossible. That'll never happen, especially in the South. And it wasn't even close - almost 3-1.

BISAHA: The thing is it's not just auto workers coming together. A half-dozen Southern governors are also teaming up to send workers a warning that unionizing could cost the South jobs and harm American workers. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham, Ala. 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.

Stephan Bisaha
[Copyright 2024 NPR]