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Volkswagen workers in Tennessee could change the trajectory of unions in the South

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

We're going to get the results of a historic election tonight. Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., have been voting for three days to decide if they'll join the United Auto Workers union. The vote is closely watched because a win here could open the floodgates for more union membership in the South. Joining us to talk about this is Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom. So, Stephan, why could the results be historic?

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Well, it's because there have been so many attempts to unionize Southern auto plants over the years, including two failed elections at this Volkswagen plant. You've had Mercedes, Nissan. All these campaigns have ended up in failures for the union, but the mood has finally started to change for the United Auto Workers for the first time in decades. That's 'cause the UAW has something it hasn't had in all that time, and that's a big win to point to. Just a few months ago, you had these historic strikes that led to at least a 25% wage increase for workers over the length of their contract, as well as other sweeteners in the contract, and that was a game changer. Here is the UAW's president, Shawn Fain, shortly after the strikes ended last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: Our goal is to come back to the table in 2028 a much stronger union, a much louder union and a much larger union, so to autoworkers everywhere, get ready to stand up.

BISAHA: And if you're looking to unionize autoworkers, really, the place you got to look is the South, because that's where many of them are.

MARTÍNEZ: Why does the South have so many nonunionized auto plants?

BISAHA: Well, it's because around 30 years ago, you had these Southern states make this pitch to foreign automakers. We'll give you hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives if you come here, and you don't have to deal with the UAW. You can run your business how you want. And that pitch worked. You had well more than a dozen foreign auto plants open up. You had Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and they created lots of really well-paying jobs.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, now tell us about some of the workers at the Volkswagen plant at the heart of this campaign.

BISAHA: Well, they're based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and this is the only Volkswagen plant where there is no worker representation. Around, like, 120 plants worldwide, that's the only one with that status. This plant produces SUVs, including the all-electric crossover, the ID.4, and it's a pretty large plant. You have around 4,300 hourly workers that are going to vote, and again, many of them have already voted against the UAW twice in the last decade 'cause, again, their pay tends to be pretty good.

MARTÍNEZ: So is it likely to work this time?

BISAHA: Well, we're going to find out tonight, but I will say there's been a different mood among the workers as I've been speaking to them throughout this week, even among those that really like their job at Volkswagen, like Kelcey Smith. I spoke to him earlier this week, and he's worked at Volkswagen for about a year and says he wants more money to use as a cushion for his kids and grandkids.

KELCEY SMITH: If I'm going to give a company years and years of my life to make a product for him, to generate money for him, then I want all that I can get so I can have something for mines.

BISAHA: So again, Smith is going to be voting for the union, and he'll be at a worker election results party tonight. And I'm heading up to Chattanooga to join him, to see what the results are going to be for this potentially historic election.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom. Stephan, thanks.

BISAHA: Thank you. 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.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Stephan Bisaha
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