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How UAW, Volkswagen vote could give unions 'leverage'

The United Auto Workers (UAW) is seeking to expand its unionization efforts beyond the Detroit Big 3 automakers (STLA, GM, F). Workers at Volkswagen's (VOW.DE) plant in Tennessee are voting on unionization, a pivotal moment for the labor organization. Cornell University's Director of Labor Relations, Arthur Wheaton, provides insights into the significance of this development.

Wheaton notes that the Volkswagen vote is crucial because if the UAW can increase the number of unionized autoworkers in the United States, "it gives them more leverage at the bargaining table."

When asked about the potential impact of the Volkswagen vote on the spread of unionization to other automakers, Wheaton acknowledges that "the reality is it's going to take a lot more work" — cautioning against the expectation that "all of the other plants will immediately get majority people to say yes we want the Union."

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This post was written by Angel Smith

Video transcript

JULIE HYMAN: The United Auto Workers Union is eyeing a significant milestone. Auto Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee are voting on union membership, a win for the UAW as it looks to spread unions beyond Detroit-owned automakers. Or it would be a win if they win. Arthur Wheaton is Cornell University director of labor studies, and he's joining us now for more on this. Art, thanks for being here. So as you look at this vote, Volkswagen, not as iconic a name as GM and Ford and the other unionized automakers in the US, but what kind of significance does this vote have?

ARTHUR WHEATON: Well, what most people don't realize is Volkswagen's actually bigger than GM and bigger than Ford, that it's a very large global company, and they've got a huge presence around the world. But yeah, it doesn't have a lot of market share in the US. It makes a big difference if the UAW can start organizing some of the foreign-owned companies here in the US, outside of just the Detroit 3.

- Art, what are the potential implications, not just in terms of the number of Toyota workers impacted here, but just in terms of the US auto industry moving forward? What could that look like?

ARTHUR WHEATON: Well, right now it's about 48% of people who make cars are unionized in the US, and about 52% non-union. So if the UAW can get a majority, and increase that number that are unionized, it gives them more leverage at the bargaining table, and they're able to say, well, this is what the UAW rate is, the others will try to pay higher to keep up with what that is to avoid a union organizing drive, so that's part of what's driving this now.

JULIE HYMAN: How do you think the vote is going to go? Do you think the UAW is going to get there?

ARTHUR WHEATON: I'm optimistic. I think they have a pretty good chance. Five years ago they got 48% of the vote, so they only lost by 2%. And the UAW has been on a pretty good roll. They have a lot of momentum going their way. They had President Biden marching with them on their strike. They've had about 75% to 80% of the general public were on the UAW side during those strikes. And I think the general sentiment towards unions, according to Gallup, is the highest since the 60s. So I think there's a pretty good chance. That's not a lot more they have to increase to be able to win recognition.

- Right. Well, it's a really good point. And forgive me, I mentioned Toyota earlier, I meant, obviously, Volkswagen. But I want to talk about another automaker here, which is Tesla. And earlier this week, we had reports after layoffs that Elon Musk came out and apologized for the lower-than-expected severance packages for some of the individuals laid off. I wonder if a situation like that, to you, is read as something that could lead to a higher chance of unionization efforts coming for Tesla moving forward as well?

ARTHUR WHEATON: Absolutely. What they negotiated in the most recent contract for the UAW is people could voluntarily leave, and they could get a check for $50,000 if they've been there for a while. And Tesla, they didn't know they were laid off until they went to scan their cards and say, gee, my ID doesn't work. And it says, Oh, yeah, we forgot to tell you, you're laid off. Didn't you read your email? So there's a lot more protections and structure on how you do things in a unionized environment. And Tesla is very anti-union, so it's going to be harder to organize Tesla.

JULIE HYMAN: So besides Tesla, there are other foreign automakers, certainly, that are non-unionized in the United States, right? So you're talking about the likes of a BMW, Mercedes, which has a vote coming up on May 17. If Volkswagen goes the unions way, do you see then the other sort of are-- a domino effect with the others? Do they sort of-- do positive votes for the union, then feed upon themselves?

ARTHUR WHEATON: I'd love to say, yes, it's going to be a domino effect. But the reality is it's going to take a lot more work. Organizing is done one person at a time, not just one plan at a time, one person at a time. And you got to remember, this is the third vote for Volkswagen. So it's not the first time. So the expectations should not be that all of the other plants will immediately get majority people to say, yes, we want the union. So the best chance is that Volkswagen, and then next up is for Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Alabama, they have a relatively good chance. But no one really knows because they haven't had a big vote in a long time, if ever.

- All right, Art, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us on that. Really appreciate.