The United Auto Workers won a potentially momentum-shifting organizing victory last week. In a secret ballot election conducted by the NLRB at a Chattanooga, Tennessee Volkswagen plant, nearly 75% of the putative bargaining unit of 4,000+ workers voted to be represented by the UAW. The union had failed twice before, most recently a narrow defeat in 2019. In the absence of meritorious objections to the election, the UAW will be certified as the bargaining representative for all production and maintenance workers at the plant.

After decades of futility, the victory is the UAW’s first major win in its longstanding drive to unionize the growing number of manufacturing plants that have been opened by international automakers in the South. Could it signal a change in the union’s fortunes? The UAW certainly hopes so. The union has filed a petition for an election at a large Mercedez-Benz production facility in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and an election has been scheduled for next month.  It has other southern plants in its sights.

Why did Chattanooga factory workers who rejected two previous UAW organizing efforts change their tune? The historic and highly publicized wage and benefit increases the UAW won last year from the “Detroit Three” automakers certainly didn’t hurt. That’s a persuasive argument, especially when it’s made to a younger workforce that is more open to unions. Look at the recent gains unions have made in retail, food service and tech-related industries dominated by younger workers. Moreover, VW isn’t exactly anti-union. The “works council” that represents its German workers has seats on the Board of Directors. 

Still, there is no guarantee the UAW will be able replicate the historic gains it won from U.S. automakers in its negotiations with VW.  Under federal labor law, a newly organized employer such as VW has no obligation to agree to a union’s wage and benefit demands, or any proposal, regardless of what its competitors agreed to. Moreover, published data shows that, on average, it takes over a year for a union to secure a collective bargaining agreement with a newly organized employer. So, it could be a while.

That said, recent NLRB decisions have made it harder for newly organized employers to operate without a labor agreement in place. Specifically, in Wendt Corp., the NLRB ruled that a newly organized employer was forbidden from making unilateral changes to employees’ terms and conditions of employment based upon past practice that involved any meaningful degree of discretion by the employer, and, further, that such employers could not rely upon past practice developed prior to the Union’s certification. Consequently, in order to make operational changes, VW may be forced to bargain with the UAW, which could provide the union with significant leverage in negotiations.

As the saying goes, elections have consequences.