Volkswagen workers in Tennessee hoping to join the United Automobile Workers asked a federal agency on Monday to hold an election, a key step toward the union’s longstanding goal of organizing non-union factories across the South.

The union said Volkswagen workers filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board demanding a union vote after a “supermajority” of the 4,000 eligible workers at the plant signed cards supporting the UAW

It was not specified how many workers signed the cards, but workers were previously advised to get them Support for more than 70 percent of day laborers and establish a strong organizing committee before seeking an election. A simple majority is required to achieve representation.

“Today we are one step closer to turning a good job at Volkswagen into a great career,” Isaac Meadows, an assembly worker at the plant, said in a statement issued by the union.

A factory election would be the first test of the UAW’s strength after the union staged a wave of strikes in the fall against three Detroit automakers – General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis – and pushed through record wage increases – backed by the Biden administration.

In a statement Monday, Volkswagen said it would “fully support” an election that gives every worker the opportunity to vote on union representation. “We respect our workers’ right to a democratic process and to determine who will represent their interests,” the company said.

Later on Monday, President Biden released a statement congratulating Volkswagen workers on their bid to unionize.

The UAW hopes to use the momentum of its negotiations with Detroit-based manufacturers to organize non-union factories in the South that pay significantly lower wages than union factories. The UAW plans to spend $40 million on its campaign over the next three years.

Chattanooga workers have voted twice on UAW representation, with narrow majorities rejecting unionization each time. In a 2014 vote, the union faced no opposition from Volkswagen management, but there was vocal opposition from Republican leaders who suggested unionization would jeopardize expansion and job growth at the plant. There was a second narrow defeat in 2019.

Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the UAW is in a good position to win a majority this time.

“Now they have a lot more support from lawmakers, the public and the president,” he said. “You can say, ‘We can help you get better wages and benefits, and we’ve proven we can do that with the Big Three.'”

Over the past 40 years, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and other foreign-owned automakers have built more than two dozen auto plants in the South and lower Midwest, spurred by right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to organize workers.

They also often chose to build factories in rural areas, where wages are significantly lower than in Michigan and other northern states.

In addition to Volkswagen’s efforts, union campaigns are underway at a Mercedes-Benz plant and a Hyundai plant, both in Alabama. According to the union, more than half of Mercedes workers and more than 30 percent of Hyundai workers have signed cards supporting UAW membership.

Volkswagen workers said they wanted to join the UAW to demand higher wages, more time off and improved safety measures. The Chattanooga plant opened in 2011 and produces the full-size Atlas sport utility vehicle and the ID.4 electric vehicle. It is the only Volkswagen plant in the world without union representation.

“VW has worked with unionized workers around the world to make their plants safe and successful,” Victor Vaughn, a logistics worker, said in the union statement. “That’s why we’re voting for a voice at Volkswagen here in Chattanooga.”

The UAW is likely to receive support in the election from the powerful German union IG Metall. Under German law, employee representatives occupy half of the seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, equivalent to an American board of directors.

The UAW has been trying unsuccessfully to organize these non-union auto plants for years, but the unions have been successful a resurgence in recent years in organizing efforts and contract disputes.

GM, Ford and Stellantis agreed in the fall to about 25 percent raises for workers at the highest UAW wages and even bigger raises for workers further down the pay scale.

Within a few years, nearly all of the 146,000 UAW workers at Detroit companies will be earning more than $40 an hour – the equivalent of about $83,000 a year for those working 40 hours a week.

The Volkswagen factory announced shortly after the Big Three strikes, an 11 percent wage increase brought the peak hourly wage for production workers to $32.40.

Non-union auto factories typically hire new workers for less than $20 an hour and pay a top wage of under $30 an hour.

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