After Gains at Big Three, U.A.W. Aims at Nonunion Plants

After Gains at Big Three, U.A.W. Aims at Nonunion Plants

When Shawn Fain, the president of the United Automobile Workers, unveiled the deal that ended six weeks of strikes at Ford Motor in the fall, he portrayed it as part of a longer campaign. Next, he said, it will be the job, not unionization to organize organized operations throughout the country.

“One of our biggest goals after this historic treaty 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 only be with the Big Three. It will be the Big Five or Big Six.”

Four months later, the first test of this strategy has come into focus, involving a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to the union, more than half of the more than 4,000 eligible workers have signed cards expressing their support for a union. Workers say they did so because they wanted higher wages, more paid time off and more generous health benefits — and because recent strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis convinced them that a union could help win those concessions to reach.

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

The Volkswagen factory announced an 11 percent wage increase shortly after the Big Three strikes. The increase brought the top hourly wage for production workers to $32.40, but the comparable wage for Detroit automakers will top $40 by the end of the new contracts. (Volkswagen said the wage adjustment was part of an annual review.)

The unions need a simple majority of votes to win, but the UAW says it will not file an election at the Chattanooga plant until 70 percent of the plant’s workers have signed cards and workers have formed a large organizing committee, which union officials expect the next month.

The caution reflects the UAW’s experience in the South, where previous campaigns have been insufficient.

But the stakes may be even higher this time, considering the union has invested in organizing multiple plants at once — including a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, where more than 50 percent of workers have signed cards, and a Hyundai -Alabama plant, where the union operates, has cards from more than 30 percent of workers.

Last week, the union announced it was also committing $40 million through 2026 to organizing auto and battery workers — far more than its previous budget for such efforts, according to Jonah Furman, a union spokesman — and noted that Time is of the essence.

“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 comes online,” the union said in its funding announcement.

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

“The failure of union organizing is often not because workers oppose union membership, but because they are not convinced they can win,” said Dr. Murray. “Showing they can win is a big deal in getting workers who weren’t excited to be excited.”

A loss in Chattanooga, said Dr. Murray, could weaken employee confidence and encourage resistance from management at other automakers.

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 will fight against change,” Fiorani said.

The union appears to be benefiting from a resurgence in interest in organizing after a lull during Donald J. Trump’s presidency and the start of the pandemic. According to the National Labor Relations Board, unions won more than 1,225 elections last year, the most in at least a decade. They lost about 500.

Polls show younger workers are particularly supportive, and they appear to be helping drive recent organizing in the auto industry. “We let them know, ‘You make a good salary for your age, but this can be better,'” said Ronald Terry, a worker who helped organize at the Hyundai plant in Alabama.

Younger workers at the Volkswagen plant also express frustration with the paid time off they receive: 12 or 13 days during their first two years of employment, several of which they must use during plant closures if they want to get paid.

Asked about the complaints, a Volkswagen spokesman said the company understands that time off is a significant problem and that it recently announced an increase in unpaid time off for emergencies.

The company said last month that its wages in Chattanooga have risen almost twice as fast as the rate of inflation since 2013, and that the average production worker this year earned more than $60,000 without bonuses or overtime and less than $2,000 would pay in premiums to cover more than 80 hours percent of healthcare costs.

The union sought a vote in Chattanooga in 2014 and faced no resistance from the company, whose global plants are largely unionized. But the effort failed due to pressure from Republican leaders, who suggested that a union would jeopardize the plant’s expansion.

With workers complaining about understaffing, high injury rates and last-minute overtime, the UAW tried again in 2019. But there were pleas from Tennessee’s governor and the plant’s original chief executive, who said he had returned to his former position to address workers’ concerns, to defuse support. The union narrowly lost.

This time the union appears determined to minimize the impact of such resistance.

The union wants to hire a volunteer manager for every line and shift at the plant – more than 125 in total, according to the union’s tally. This way, organizers say, volunteers can quickly respond to any rumors or company conversations that colleagues come across.

“If you don’t have someone to continue the conversation, we’ve seen some regression in some smaller areas,” said Isaac Meadows, a staff member involved in the organization.

He attributed the regression to the influence of outside groups and talk from workers’ friends and relatives that a union would deter employers from locating in Tennessee.

Gerald McCormick, a Republican who, as majority leader in the state House of Representatives, opposed the union in the 2014 vote, said Republicans might fear that the union would support left-wing causes in Tennessee if it gained a foothold there.

“You don’t want to do them any favors,” he said, referring to the state’s Republican leadership, which he said would again oppose the union campaign.

As in 2019, the employer’s reaction can be crucial. In the US, the Volkswagen brand seems to be holding its own and being a little ahead of the curve in the transition to electric vehicles.

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

A Volkswagen employee said during a tour of the factory that ID.4s are expected to account for about a third of production this year and that the share could double within a decade.

In this case, the plant may be relatively well positioned to absorb higher labor costs. Corey Cantor, electric vehicle analyst at BloombergNEF, said continued battery innovation, along with efficiency gains from larger-scale battery production, could offset cost increases associated with unionization.

But a union presence could make ramping up electric vehicle production more difficult, said Mr. Fiorani of AutoForecast Solutions, if the union resists the decline in workers per car that could accompany the switch. But he noted that companies that make their own batteries might be able to redeploy those workers instead of laying them off.

Pablo Di Si, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said in a statement that the plant had already created new jobs in battery pack assembly and battery technology.

In a meeting with reporters last month, a Volkswagen representative said that the company would remain neutral during an election campaign but that “neutrality doesn’t mean being silent – it means being impartial to employees’ decisions.”

The official added that the company will correct misinformation about wages and working conditions at the plant that it accuses the union of spreading. (Companies that enter into neutrality agreements with unions typically do not intervene in this way.)

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

“Someone put out some business cards for a lawn service company, and we had some material on the same table,” Mr. Meadows recalled. “Our materials have disappeared, but the others have not.”

Volkswagen said table cleanliness would be regulated by “clear guidelines.”

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2024-03-02 08:00:27