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Unions' Recent Organizing Success Draws Political Pushback

Unions have recently enjoyed some success in both recruitment and labor actions. They now face resistance from lawmakers in red states, particularly in the South.

UAW President Shawn Fain in Chattanooga, Tenn.
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks at a vote watch party on April 19 in Chattanooga, Tenn. With over 51 percent of workers voting yes, the UAW won the right to form a union at the plant.
Elijah Nouvelage/TNS
In Brief:
  • Workers at the Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant are among the first auto industry workers to unionize in the South.

  • Southern governors warn that unionizing could lead to layoffs.

  • Organizing is continuing in the South, with another plant holding a unionization vote next week.

  • Around 12 percent of workers across the United States belong to a union. The United Auto Workers (UAW) recently added to their number, winning a landmark victory with a vote to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, making Tennessee the first Southern state with unionized auto industry workers at a foreign-owned plant.

    Last fall, after reaching a tentative agreement with Ford for a contract lasting until 2028, UAW President Shawn Fain said, “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three but the Big Five or Big Six.”

    But the union's efforts are drawing pushback from some politicians. Last month, a coalition of southern governors released a statement opposing UAW’s unionization campaign in their region. Citing fears of jobs being put in jeopardy, the statement points to layoffs at existing unionized plants, “No one wants to hear this, but it’s the ugly reality,” the governors state. “We’ve seen it play out this way every single time a foreign automaker plant has been unionized; not one of those plants remains in operation.”

    Following the successful vote in Chattanooga, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told reporters that it was “a loss for workers”: “I think it was a mistake, but that’s their choice.”

    The argument isn't just about workers, however, but politics. In their statement, the southern governors complain that unions “seem more focused on helping President Biden get re-elected than on the auto worker jobs being cut at plants they already represent.” (At the beginning of 2024, UAW President Fain endorsed Joe Biden at a major union conference.)
    Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks
    Alabama GOP Gov. Kay Ivey has helped lead the effort among Southern governors to combat union organizing.
    Bob Gathany/TNS

    A Long History of Conflict

    Resistance to unions is nothing new, but it looks a little different in 2024. “Back in the day, they killed workers to stop unionization,” says Stephen Silvia, an expert on labor relations at American University. Silvia describes a tradition of companies hiring private detectives such as the Pinkertons and, in some states, governors calling in the National Guard to curb strikes. “The history of unionization before the National Labor Relations Act, which passed in 1935, was bloody. It was brutal.”

    Nowadays, the most notable tactics companies use to combat organizing include training managers to spot union discussions early and trying to stay ahead of potential complaints that might lead workers to consider a union in the first place.

    “This is a wake-up call for them to be responsive to the employees’ needs and listen to them,” said Ellen McNair, Alabama's secretary of commerce, on Capitol Journal. “I think that absolutely needs to be done. But hopefully, we can do that on a one-to-one basis without a third party interfering.”

    Alabama was the next state on UAW’s drive. Workers at thethe Mercedes plant in Vance voted on unionization between May 13 and 17. In a disappointing outcome for UAW, 56 percent of workers at the plant voted against unionizing.

    Despite the hurdles unions face, increasing numbers of American workers either approve of unions or want to be in one in their own workplace, with over 60 million workers expressing an interest in a workplace union, according to one labor-backed group. This is a significant increase after the long decline of labor unions since the 1970s.

    Much of this is due to a tight labor market, the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of workplaces and increased support from the National Labor Relations Board, to which Biden has made more union-friendly appointments. Support seems especially to be growing among younger workers.

    “Though workers of all ages are involved, young people have driven forward labor's resurgence from below,” says Eric Blanc, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If established unions can tap this energy, it could be possible to turn around labor's decades-long decline.”
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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