(Bloomberg) -- The United Auto Workers said it has signed up more than 1,000 employees at Volkswagen AG’s non-union Tennessee auto plant, setting up a high-stakes showdown at a site where the union suffered painful past defeats.
The union has now gained the support of more than 30% of workers at the Chattanooga facility, it said. That’s a key threshold for the group because it means Volkswagen employees who have been working with the UAW will go public with their efforts as they seek to win more support, according to the union.
Once 70% of employees at a plant the UAW is targeting support organizing efforts, and if company management declines to voluntarily recognize the union, the labor group will try to win a government-supervised unionization election.
“There are a lot of young workers in the plant now and this generation wants respect,” employee Steve Cochran said in an emailed statement from the UAW. “They see what’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon. They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay and a better life.”
Volkswagen released a statement late Thursday that noted the company recently gave its US workers an 11% raise and has invested more than $4.3 billion in its Chattanooga factory.
“We believe in frequent, transparent, and two-way dialogue with our people,” the German automaker said. “We also respect the right of our workers to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace.”
The UAW is trying to quickly capitalize on its recent contract victories in Detroit and reverse labor’s decades-long decline in the auto sector. Last week, it announced it was mounting simultaneous, public campaigns to organize 13 carmakers’ non-union plants.
The push aims to bring nearly 150,000 employees into the union’s ranks, including workers at firms like Tesla Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. as well as Volkswagen.
Read More: UAW President Is Ready to Take On Tesla and Beat Elon Musk
As part of that effort, the UAW is working to build organizing committees made of workers at each of the companies. Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant is the first one where the union is announcing it’s passed the 30% support mark. Within one week, a third of workers signed union cards there, according to the UAW.
The German carmaker declined last week to comment on the UAW’s campaign.
Employees at the Chattanooga plant narrowly voted against the UAW in elections held in 2014 and 2019, both of which were marked by vocal opposition from Tennessee lawmakers.
A much smaller group of skilled-trade workers at the plant voted for the union in a separate 2015 election, but the company then refused to negotiate with the group, saying that bargaining unit was inadequate. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the UAW opted to try again to win the whole plant rather than pursue that legal dispute.
At one point in UAW’s unsuccessful 2019 campaign, Volkswagen established a website which told workers, “We prefer to continue our direct relationship with you, working together as one team,” the New York Times reported at the time.
“Times have changed and our time is now,” the union said in video released Thursday. The video includes news coverage of the union’s recent victories at Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Stellantis NV, where strikes secured new contracts that will bring workers’ top pay rate up 33% by 2028.
The video tells workers, “The question isn’t, ‘Why do GM workers in Spring Hill or Ford workers in Louisville get a better life?’ The question is, why don’t we?”
--With assistance from Keith Naughton.
(Updates with VW statement from the fifth paragraph.)
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