This week Volkswagen laid out a plan to recognize the United Auto Workers at its Tennessee plant, though it’s not quite what the union was hoping for.
The UAW has been desperate to organize one of the foreign-owned plants in the South as it rebuilds its membership rolls. And the South is where so many of the auto jobs are these days.
“The plants are located here. It’s important for us to organize them,” UAW president Dennis Williams said at a ceremony establishing a local chapter in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The UAW’s southern strategy appeared to be snuffed out in February when workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant voted down union representation. This was at an automaker that had been welcoming to the union.
Instead of trying its luck elsewhere, the UAW has tried a side door. It started a local chapter even without recognition from Volkswagen.
The UAW has called this week’s policy change at Volkswagen a “step forward.” But it still doesn’t accomplish the Detroit-based union’s ultimate goal.
The policy allows for multiple unions to have different levels of representation. And no one would get exclusive bargaining rights. For that reason, some Republican politicians who had been campaigning against the UAW are cheering.
“I think it’s a victory for the workers, for Volkswagen and for Chattanooga, in particular,” said Gerald McCormick, majority leader of the Tennessee state house.
Republicans have fought to keep the UAW from getting a foothold in the region because they see the union as damaging to the business climate.
The union could use a big win to go into other plants with a head of steam.
“We’re talking to Nissan workers, we’re talking to Mercedes workers. We talk to BMW workers,” UAW secretary Gary Casteel said during the organizing push. “Which one of those has the amount of interest from employees that we would start an organizing drive? We’d have to assess that.”
But Casteel points out that the UAW has a long history in the south, just not in the big multinational plants.
Membership has even grown in recent years, but labor attorney Cliff Hammond says they’re small shops.
“I don’t think people really appreciate how difficult it is to—even in Michigan, Ohio—win a big plant, let alone down in the South where you don’t have your grassroots,” Hammond said.
And despite inroads at Volkswagen, no one is counting this week as the momentum-shifting win the UAW has been looking for.
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