For the second time in five years, a slim majority of hourly workers at Volkswagen's 8-year-old Chattanooga assembly plant has rejected a bid to unionize with the UAW — affirming a similar outcome from 2014 and marking yet another failed effort by the union to organize a foreign-owned vehicle assembly plant in the U.S. South.
A spokesman for Volkswagen of America said preliminary results of the balloting — which took place in the factory over the last three days — showed 833 workers, or 51.8 percent, cast ballots against the union, while 776, or 48.2 percent, supported the UAW bid. Volkswagen said 93 percent of eligible workers cast ballots.
The results must still be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, which conducted the election. A review and ruling by the NLRB is expected next week.
The outcome is another bitter loss for the UAW in the South after defeats at VW in 2014 and Nissan in 2017. Only 44 votes separated the 712 nays and 626 yeas at VW in 2014, while over 60 percent of Nissan workers rejected the union at the Japanese automaker's plant in Canton, Miss., in August 2017. In 2015, a large majority of skilled-trades workers at VW Chattanooga voted to unionize and affiliate under the UAW, but they were unable to win a first contract.
UAW organizing director Tracy Romero said VW workers endured threats of losing their jobs and other tactics that undermined the union's recruiting drive.
“The company ran a brutal campaign of fear and misinformation,” Romero said in a statement Friday. "Fear of the loss of the plant; fear of their participation in the union effort; fear through misinformation about the UAW; fear about current benefits in contract negotiations. Over a period of nine weeks – an unprecedented length of time due to legal gamesmanship – Volkswagen was able to break the will of enough workers to destroy their majority.”
The union also called on Congress to amend “broken” U.S. labor laws. UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg says current law “caters to clever [company] lawyers who are able to manipulate the NLRB process.”
The vote is another major setback for UAW leaders, which view VW as fertile territory to recruit workers because of the company's German roots and the country's co-determination act. Unions represent workers at other VW factories worldwide, except for China, and half of the company's supervisory board is made up of labor leaders from IG Metall, one of Germany's most powerful trade unions.
The union's membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1979 and has dropped to less than a third of that level in recent years, reflecting the downsizing and U.S. market share losses at the Detroit 3, outsourcing across the auto industry and a failure to recruit workers at foreign-owned parts and assembly plants.
"Our employees have spoken," Frank Fischer, president and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said in a statement after the results were released. "Pending certification of the results by the NLRB and a legal review of the election, Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority."
The campaign over whether the plant's 1,700 workers should form a union was a very vocal one that involved a personal, company-time visit from Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee as well as statements against the union from other prominent Republican officials in the state, including U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
Pro-union VW workers complained of lax health and safety procedures, and campaigned on quality-of-life issues such as constant last-minute changes in scheduling, insufficient vacation time and small bonuses.
"This is not about a pay raise," Steven Fugat, 26, told Reuters. "I just want some stability, I want to know when I have to work and when I get to be with my family or helping out at my church."
Fugat said he makes $20 an hour hanging tires, installing consoles, seats and rearview mirrors on Atlas and Passat vehicles near the end of the assembly line, and before the vote said, "I want respect for my time, and we are ready for a change for the good."
Keri Menendez, 44, who opposed the UAW, told Reuters that her problem was not with organized labor but with the UAW, which has struggled with a wide-ranging federal corruption probe over the last two years in Detroit. "Corruption has been a problem for the UAW," said Menendez, a team leader on the line making $23.50 an hour. "They're more interested in their own business than caring for people."
Volkswagen says that in 2018, the average assembly worker at Chattanooga earned nearly $55,000 while skilled workers made more than $78,000. That compares with $95,000 for assembly workers and $123,000 for skilled work, on average, for U.S.-based GM, including overtime and profit-sharing bonuses.
In January, VW CEO Herbert Diess and Volkswagen of America CEO Scott Keogh announced that Chattanooga had been selected as the site of a new $800 million assembly plant to build battery electric vehicles. A VW spokesman said that the results of the vote would not change that investment plan.
Reuters contributed to this report.