By Lillian Hartgrove, State Board of Education Chairman
Special to the UCBJ
In a nationally watched union election at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, which concluded on June 14, 2019, the UAW lost another secret ballot union election by a vote of 838-776, a margin of 62 votes. The last plant-wide election was held in 2014, which the union lost by 86 votes.
The history of the situation in Chattanooga is very interesting. First, the UAW has been unable to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the South, including previous losses at Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee. Following its loss at Volkswagen at Chattanooga in 2014, the union successfully organized a smaller voting unit at Volkswagen, comprised of just maintenance employees. However, the election results were contested and the union never negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. Ironically, the election win among the maintenance employees proved problematic for the union, as it delayed its plant-wide election this year because the smaller maintenance unit still existed. The union thus abandoned that smaller unit and the election proceeded plant-wide in Chattanooga.
During the current campaign, Volkswagen stated that it was neutral, and it should be noted that Chattanooga is the only Volkswagen production facility in the world not represented by a union. Nevertheless, there was widespread public advertising and campaigning among the community with television and radio ads being purchased by the UAW, the Center for VW Facts, a pro-union advocacy group, and an anti-union group known as Southern Momentum.
Although Volkswagen itself was publicly neutral, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) told workers during a visit to Volkswagen that they were fortunate to be in a state “that has the work environment that we have.” At the time of the last plant-wide vote back in 2014, allegedly Sen. Bob Corker (R) said the company assured him that the facility would be awarded more work if workers voted not to unionize. In other words, there was publicity by politicians in Tennessee seeing a lack of unions as a selling point for attracting business. Tennessee is a state that is only approximately 6% unionized.
This is probably not the last chapter in the UAW’s efforts to organize large auto industry companies in the south. Given the close vote at Volkswagen one would not be surprised if the UAW made another effort there in the next few years.