Auto workers at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant voted against joining the United Auto Workers Friday night, handing the labor union a bitter defeat in a hard-fought effort to organize workers at a foreign-owned auto plant in a southern state.
In three days of balloting that ended Friday, 833 hourly workers voted against UAW representation, while 776 voted in favor, with 93% of eligible employees voting, according to preliminary results released by Volkswagen. The result isn’t official until the federal labor board certifies it in the coming weeks.
The election results carry added weight for the UAW, which has long been rebuffed in efforts to recruit at foreign automakers in southern states, typically an inhospitable place for organized labor. Workers at the same VW plant rejected the UAW in 2014, and the union also lost an election at a Nissan Motor Co. plant in Mississippi in 2017.
The UAW called on Congress to review U.S. labor laws and NLRB rules it said made it almost impossible for the Volkswagen workers to form a union.
“Our labor laws are broken,” Brian Rothenberg, a UAW spokesman, said in a statement. “The law doesn’t serve workers, it caters to clever lawyers who are able to manipulate the NLRB process.”
The union is also trying to regain credibility with members after a corruption investigation that implicated senior UAW officials and ex-employees of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV for their role in a scheme to embezzle funds from a UAW training center. A victory in the south would have helped boost morale ahead of negotiations for contracts covering more than 150,000 U.S. hourly workers at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler this summer.
While Volkswagen was officially neutral toward the organizing effort, the drive attracted plenty of opposition from local politicians, including Senator Marsha Blackburn, and Governor Bill Lee, who visited the plant last month and told a captive audience of workers they’d be better off having a direct relationship with the company.
“Our employees have spoken,” Frank Fischer, president of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the state of Tennessee, Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga to support job creation, growth, and economic development today and into the future.”
UAW membership fell to 395,703 at the end of 2018, down nearly 75% from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
By Gabrielle Coppola and Andrew Wallender