This Union Is Plotting To Take Over The Auto Industry. Can It Be Done?

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After recent wins, the United Auto Workers (UAW) looks poised to take on the non-unionized automakers and, if successful, could disrupt the whole industry.

The UAW recently filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which employs around 4,000 autoworkers, as it looks to expand its reach to other automakers. A successful union vote in Chattanooga could be a key stepping stone in the UAW’s effort to break into the currently non-unionized auto plants, especially in the south, which has historically been less receptive to unions, all the while the UAW is being emboldened by labor-friendly regulators from the Biden administration, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“Chattanooga is anybody’s guess,” Sean Higgins, a labor policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told the DCNF. “Typically, unions don’t push for these votes until they’re reasonably sure that they already have enough support among the workers to win. That said, the UAW has failed twice before to organize the Chattanooga VW factory in the last decade. The union seems to have a habit of overestimating its support there.”

The union announced in February that it would be committing $40 million through 2026 for the purpose of pushing unionization across the country at auto plants. At the time, the union claimed to have more than 10,000 signing cards from individual autoworkers at 14 different non-union plants.

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In Alabama, the UAW currently boasts that a large portion of workers at a Mercedes plant outside Tuscaloosa and a Hyundai plant in Montgomery have signed union cards and gone public with their support for unionization.

The UAW’s president, Shawn Fain, has also called for all unions to align the expiration of their labor contracts to expire on the same day in 2028 in an effort to threaten a general strike to give workers better collective bargaining power as part of his broader union expansion plan.

“If the UAW wins, it’ll be a big symbolic victory for the union,” Higgins told the DCNF. “Historically, the South has never been hospitable to unions. The labor movement focused on the factories in the north and ignored the more farm-economy based South. Consequently, the South has never had a union culture like the North … A win in Chattanooga would be spun as a ‘turning point’ by the unions, though I suspect other Southern organizing efforts would still be an uphill struggle.”

The UAW’s members are currently primarily at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which have their production concentrated largely in the Midwest, but the union has said that it would be starting organization efforts at 13 new automakers last November. The union is looking at electric vehicle manufacturers Lucid, Rivian and Tesla, as well as foreign automakers with plants in the U.S. such as BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Mazda, Mercedes, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

“It’s no coincidence that UAW is finally gaining ground in Tennessee: Biden has absolutely tilted the playing field at the NLRB in favor of unionization,” David Osborne, fellow at the Institute for the American Worker, told the DCNF. “Unfortunately, many of these changes — like the NLRB’s ruling in Cemex that a union election isn’t even necessary — favor union officials at the expense of rank-and-file workers. In announcing its plans to expand unionization efforts, UAW is obviously embracing this new legal landscape.”

In August 2023, the NLRB, under the Biden administration, issued a new decision in a case with Cemex Constriction Materials Pacific, LLC, that requires employers to either comply with union demands to hold a vote when a majority of workers request recognition or to submit to unionization requests. For employers who seek elections, though, if the NLRB deems there to be any unfair labor practices, the union’s request will be automatically granted.

“Combine that with the UAW securing some big concessions from the Big Three auto companies and the fact that dozens of Democratic Senators are threatening auto companies to support pro-union neutrality agreements and outright unionization, and it’s no surprise that the unions are taking aim at auto companies across many states with the Biden administration and Democratic leaders serving as a strong tailwind to their efforts,” Austen Bannan, employment policy fellow with Americans for Prosperity, told the DCNF.

The push for unionization follows a big win for the UAW in its contract negotiations with the Big Three automakers, Ford, GM and Stellantis, near the end of last year. After a six-week strike, the parties agreed to a 25% increase in wages as well as a number of other benefits.

“Shawn Fain and other UAW officials should be wary of assuming command over workers who haven’t had a meaningful choice in whether to support the union,” Osborne told the DCNF. “The worst-case scenario for American workers, employers, and unions is one in which the government gives union officials unearned legal authority to speak on employees’ behalf.”

The UAW leadership announced in February that the union would endorse President Joe Biden for the 2024 election without consulting with union members. Rank-and-file UAW members are more divided on the president than leadership, with several members telling the DCNF that many workers at auto plants support former President Trump instead for the upcoming election.

“Last year, they were focused on re-negotiating their contracts with the Big Three Detroit automakers,” Higgins told the DCNF. “Now that that’s done, they have the time and resources to look elsewhere. The Chattanooga plant has been a sore issue because they failed there twice before. UAW President Shawn Fain would love to be able to say he succeeded where the previous UAW leaders failed.”

The UAW did not respond to a request to comment from the DCNF.

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