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Volkswagen vote sets a new trajectory for labor unions in the American South

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The labor movement scored a historic victory last week in a region of the U.S. where unions have rarely been welcomed. Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers. UAW President Shawn Fain says those workers moved a mountain. Shawn Fain is on the line with us now. Welcome to the program.

SHAWN FAIN: Thank you.

FADEL: So twice before, a vote on joining the UAW here failed. What was different this time?

FAIN: Strategy. I think the workers just - you know, the times also. I believe the workers - you know, they've been through it twice. Obviously, we saw a lot of resistance, you know, the company interfering and, you know, utilizing politicians and third parties to get involved. So I think we were definitely prepared for those things. But honestly, it's just the members, the workers. In the last decade, there's been massive profits in this nation, in this world, and the corporations are keeping more and more of that. The wealthy are keeping more and more, and the workers aren't getting their share. And I think working-class people are just fed up in this country, and they're ready for change.

FADEL: There was opposition from Republican leaders and the business community in Tennessee. With this victory, where are you setting sights next, and is Tennessee your roadmap?

FAIN: Well, for sure. I think we have the strategy down, and our next sites are Mercedes. The workers there are fired up. They're fed up. They want a union. And so we have already filed for an election in Alabama, and that election's set for mid-May. By mid-May, we believe those workers are going to vote strongly for a union also, and they're going to win justice for themselves.

FADEL: Do you expect it to be a difficult fight?

FAIN: We expected that in Tennessee. So I mean, obviously, the governor in Alabama has been a lot more vocal, and some of their political leaders, the Chamber of Commerce. But it's the same story, and at the end of the day, it comes down to this. These people are nothing but puppets for corporate America and for the billionaire class, and they're the reason why workers aren't getting their fair share. And how politicians say they represent the people and can stand there and say that workers don't deserve their fair share of the fruits of their labor, that doesn't work.

FADEL: So how far does this open the door to UAW membership at other facilities? Is it now wide open to the labor movement or open just enough to get you heard?

FAIN: Oh, I think it's wide open. I mean, I really think the COVID pandemic, as I say this over and over, you know, if there was a silver lining in the COVID pandemic, it was that workers realized that there's more to life than just working in a factory seven days a week, 12 hours a day, just to scrape to get by and live paycheck to paycheck. You know, there's been a great awakening in this country, and I think workers are ready to do what they have to do to get their fair share.

FADEL: The UAW has also endorsed President Biden for the 2024 election in a pretty divisive election. There has been some pushback there. Has that reaction to the endorsement eroded any of the UAW influence with membership who might not agree with the choice the UAW made?

FAIN: No, I don't believe at all. I mean, look, the end of the day, this isn't about political parties. We put two candidates side by side, you know, we made the endorsement based off of the candidates and their own words and actions and their support for labor. But at the end of the day, I mean, we can't make workers vote a certain way. Workers are still going to vote who they vote for, but it's our job as leaders to, you know, give them the information and put that in front of them and talk truth to them, regardless of political party and all that, and that's what we do. But I believe at the end of the day, this comes down to one thing - workers getting justice in the workplace. And the only thing that's going to do that is by organizing.

FADEL: United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain. Thank you so much for joining us.

FAIN: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANCIA & OATY'S "CAYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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