Tennessee Republican On Volkswagen Union Vote: ‘Let The Workers Decide’

When the United Auto Workers lost an election at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant in 2019, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) applauded the union’s defeat. The lawmaker said he was pleased workers voted down the UAW, 833 to 776, and hoped the issue “will not rise again.”

Well, the issue has risen again, with Volkswagen employees set to cast ballots in another vote at the plant, which is in Fleischmann’s district, starting next Wednesday. A victory for the UAW could give the Detroit-based union a crucial toehold with foreign automakers in the anti-union South. 

Only this time, Fleischmann isn’t wading into the election.

“I’ve stayed out of it this time,” Fleischmann told HuffPost as he was boarding a plane in Tennessee on Wednesday to head back to Washington, D.C. “I have never really been pro-union, but this is something that I’m going to let the workers decide.”

It’s a very reasonable position, and one his GOP colleagues haven’t always shared. 

Fleischmann said the choice of whether to unionize or not should be left to Volkswagen employees.
Fleischmann said the choice of whether to unionize or not should be left to Volkswagen employees. Tom Williams via Getty Images

The UAW narrowly lost plant-wide elections at the Volkswagen facility in both 2014 and 2019, major setbacks to the union’s hope of rebuilding its density across the auto industry. Many union supporters attributed the losses, at least in part, to political interference on the part of Tennessee Republicans.

Ahead of the 2014 vote, former Gov. Bill Haslam said openly that he wanted the union drive to fail, while former Sen. Bob Corker said the plant would get a new SUV production line if workers voted down the UAW. And state lawmakers threatened to withhold tax incentives in the event of a union victory.

The union lost 712 to 626. The UAW appealed the loss unsuccessfully on the grounds that politicians had created an “atmosphere of fear” and made them believe their jobs were on the line with the election.

As the union geared up for another vote in 2019, Republican Gov. Bill Lee led a plant-wide meeting in which he encouraged workers to maintain a “direct relationship” with Volkswagen — employer speak for staying union-free. The union ended up losing by just 57 votes.

Many union supporters attributed the UAW's previous losses, at least in part, to political interference on the part of Republicans.

Lee has continued to publicly oppose the union. In an event Monday, he said the plant unionizing would be a “big mistake.” 

“[W]e’ve seen plants close that made the decision to go union,” Lee said. “So I hope that’s not what happens here.”

Union supporters inside the plant are optimistic about their chances this time. Indeed, the atmosphere is different for both the UAW and organized labor in general.

The UAW is coming off a historic strike last year against the “Big 3” — Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis — with a strong contract that has galvanized organizing at non-union plants. Like the Volkswagen workers, Mercedes-Benz employees in Alabama also gathered enough signatures to petition for a union election at their plant. Meanwhile, union favorability is hovering near a six-decade high.

Although Fleischmann doesn’t personally support unions, he noted that he represents plenty of union members in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the U.S. Department of Energy is a major employer. 

“I have a lot of union members in Oak Ridge, federal union members who support me by the thousands,” he said.