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Big union bet: push to unionize all American automobile factories


When Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers, revealed the agreement which ended a six-week strike at Ford Motor in the fall, he framed it as part of a longer campaign. Next, he said, would be organizing non-union factories across the country.

“One of our biggest goals following this historic contract victory is to organize like we have never done before,” he said at the time. “When we return to the negotiating table in 2028, it will not just be with the Big Three. These will be the Big Five or Big Six.

Four months later, the first test of this strategy came to light and involved a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to the union, more than half of the 4,000 eligible workers have signed cards indicating their support for a union. Workers say they did it because they want higher wages, more paid leave and more generous health benefits – and because recent strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have convinced them that a union can help them obtain these concessions.

“The Big Three had their big campaign, their big strike, their big vote and their new contracts – we paid close attention to that,” said Yolanda Peoples, who has worked at the Volkswagen plant for almost 13 years.

The Volkswagen factory announcement an 11 percent pay rise shortly after the Big Three strikes. The increase brought the highest hourly wage for production workers to $32.40, but the comparable wage for Detroit automakers will be exceed $40 at the end of new contracts. (Volkswagen said the salary adjustment was part of an annual review.)

Unions need a simple majority to win, but the UAW says so I will not file for elections at the Chattanooga plant until 70 percent of the plant’s workers have signed cards and workers have formed a broad organizing committee, which union officials expect next month.

This caution reflects the UAW’s experience in the South, where past campaigns below.

But the stakes could be even higher this time given the union’s investment in organizing several plants at once – including a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, where more than 50 percent of workers have signed cards, and a Hyundai plant in Alabama, where the union has cards for more than 30 percent of workers.

Last week, the union said it also allocated $40 million for unionizing auto and battery workers through 2026 – far exceeding its previous budget for such efforts, according to Jonah Furman, a spokesperson for the union – and suggested that the time is running out.

“Over the next few years, the electric vehicle battery industry is expected to create tens of thousands of jobs across the country, and new standards will be set as the industry ramps up,” the union said in its funding announcement.

If the union wins in Chattanooga, said Joshua Murray, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who studied In response to the auto industry’s reaction to unionization, it could quickly replicate the victory at other factories, as it did during a wave of unionization in the 1930s.

“Often, the failure of organizing is not because workers are opposed to joining a union, but rather because they are not convinced they can win,” said the Dr. Murray. “Showing they can win is a big deal to convince workers who weren’t enthusiastic about it to be.”

A loss in Chattanooga, Dr. Murray said, could undermine employee confidence and encourage executives at other automakers to resist.

Other analysts, like Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at research firm AutoForecast Solutions, predicted Tesla would pose a particular challenge. “The boss of Tesla is Elon Musk, and he’s going to fight change,” Mr. Fiorani said.

The union appears to be benefiting from renewed interest in organizing after a lull under President Donald J. Trump and the start of the pandemic. Last year, unions won more than 1,225 elections – a record at least a decade, according to the National Labor Relations Board. They lost about 500.

Polls show that young workers are particularly supportive and that they seem to be helping to fuel the recent unionization of the auto industry. “We let them know, ‘You’re making a good wage for your age, but it can be better,'” said Ronald Terry, a worker involved in organizing at the Hyundai plant in Alabama.

Young workers at the Volkswagen plant also express frustration with the paid leave they accumulate: 12 or 13 days during their first two years of employment, of which they have to use several days during factory closures. they want to be paid.

Asked about the complaints, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company understands that leave is a significant issue and that it recently announced an increase in unpaid leave for emergencies.

The company said last month that its wages in Chattanooga have increased nearly twice the rate of inflation since 2013 and that the average production worker will earn more than $60,000 this year before bonuses and overtime and would pay less than $2,000 in premiums to cover more than 80 hours. percent of health care costs.

The union called for a vote in Chattanooga in 2014 and faced no opposition from the company, whose factories around the world are mostly unionized. But the the effort failed under pressure from state Republican leaders, who suggested a union would jeopardize the plant’s expansion.

As workers complain of understaffing, high accident rates and last-minute overtime, the UAW I tried again in 2019. But calls from Tennessee’s governor and the plant’s first chief executive, who said he had returned to his old position to address workers’ concerns, appeared to defuse support. The union narrowly lost.

This time, the union seems determined to minimize the effect of such a reaction.

The union wants to recruit a volunteer leader for every work line on every shift at the plant – more than 125 in total, by the union’s count. This way, organizers say, volunteers can respond quickly to rumors or company talking points encountered by their colleagues.

“If no one continues this conversation, we see some pushback in a few smaller areas,” said Isaac Meadows, a worker involved in the recruitment.

He attributed this decline to the influence of outside groups and discussions among workers’ friends and relatives that a union would discourage employers from locating in Tennessee.

Gerald McCormick, a Republican who as state legislative majority leader opposed the union in the 2014 vote, said Republicans may fear the union supports left-wing causes in Tennessee s he got a foothold there.

“They don’t want to do them any favors,” he said, referring to the state’s Republican leaders, who he said would once again oppose the union drive.

As in 2019, the employer’s response could be crucial. The Volkswagen brand seems to be holding its own in the United States and being ahead in the transition to electric vehicles.

More than 11 percent of Volkswagen sales in the United States last year came from electric vehicles, particularly the ID.4, a compact sport utility vehicle built in Chattanooga. This figure is higher than the overall 9.4% share of plug-in vehicles in the U.S. market, according to BloombergNEF, an energy research firm.

A Volkswagen official said during a factory tour that about a third of its production this year would likely be ID.4s and that share could double within a decade.

If that happens, the factory could be relatively well positioned to absorb higher labor costs. Corey Cantor, an electric vehicle analyst at BloombergNEF, said continued battery innovation, as well as the efficiency of battery production on a larger scale, could offset cost increases associated with unionization.

But a union presence could make it more difficult to ramp up electric vehicle production, said Mr. Fiorani of AutoForecast Solutions, if the union resists the decline in the number of workers per car that could accompany the shift. He noted, however, that companies that made their own batteries might be able to reassign those workers rather than lay them off.

Pablo Di Si, chief executive of Volkswagen Group America, said in a statement that the factory has already created jobs in battery assembly and battery engineering.

In a meeting with reporters last month, a Volkswagen official said the company would remain neutral during an election campaign, but that “neutral does not mean silent, it means impartial to employees’ decisions.”

The official added that the company would correct the erroneous information, which it accused the spreading union, on wages and working conditions in the factory. (Companies entering into neutrality agreements with unions generally do not intervene This way.)

Mr. Meadows, a union supporter, said managers had expressed their skepticism in sometimes subtle ways, such as by removing union flyers from lunch tables.

“Someone pulled out some business cards for a lawn care company, and we had equipment on the same table,” Mr. Meadows recalled. “Our materials are gone, and the others are not. »

Volkswagen said table cleanliness was governed by “clear policies”.


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