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Tennessee workers vote to join the UAW union

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Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga voted overwhelmingly Friday to join the United Auto Workers, giving the union a decisive foothold in the historically anti-union South.

Nearly three-quarters of workers voted for the UAW, according to the National Labor Review Board’s final results. Of the 4,326 employees entitled to vote, more than 3,600 cast their votes during the three-day elections.

As the votes were counted Friday evening, first a trickle — and later a wave — of distinctive red T-shirts with white lettering flew through the union hall of IBEW Local 175 on Friday evening.

Joseph McMullen walked into the room around 9 p.m. expecting that many of his Volkswagen colleagues would have voted in favor of forming a union. But he was unprepared for the overwhelming pro-union support shown on a projection screen.

“I think that matters,” said McMullen, an Alabama native who works in quality. “It sends a message.”

When the news of the final victory was announced, those present jumped to their feet, cheered and hugged each other. A few minutes later, UAW President Shawn Fain arrived to congratulate VW employees.

“A lot of the talking heads and the pundits said to me repeatedly, before we announced it, that you can’t win in the South,” Fain told the cheering crowd. “But you all said, ‘Look at this.’ You all moved the mountain.”

The victory came despite strong opposition from a coalition of six Southern governors, including Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. On Tuesday, Lee wrote a letter calling on workers to reject unions.

Once victory was announced, President Joe Biden responded directly to those governors in a statement.

“Let me be clear to the Republican governors who tried to undermine this vote: There is nothing to fear when American workers use their voice and their legal right to form a union if they choose,” Biden said.

Third time’s the charm? How Chattanooga’s VW Plant Finally Unionized

The UAW had tried and failed to organize the VW plant twice before, once in 2013 and again in 2019.

This election was part of a major campaign by the UAW to win new members in the South, a region that has historically been hostile to organized labor. In recent years, automakers have shifted from the Midwest to the South, with foreign automakers and start-ups such as Tesla and Rivian opening factories in the region.

After years of scandals and declining membership, the UAW has seen its fortunes rise under the leadership of Fain, who was elected in 2023. Last year, the UAW staged a strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, leading to a favorable new contract for 145,000 workers, including workers in nearby Spring Hill.

The UAW’s ability to organize Southern workers will be tested again in May, when workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will vote on whether to join the union.

“This is a new day and we’re just getting started,” Fain said.

Todd A. Price is a Southern regional reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at [email protected].