Tennessee is fastest growing state for labor unions

Membership grows 57.5% in three years but is still 31% lower than the U.S. average

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UAW President Shawn Fain speaks outside the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in December as union supporters and VW employees accuse the company of union-busting tactics.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / UAW President Shawn Fain speaks outside the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in December as union supporters and VW employees accuse the company of union-busting tactics.

Since he began working at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga six years ago, Zachery Costello said he has seen worker interest and support for joining a labor union grow at the auto plant.

"Unfortunately, I think workers have been disempowered and dictated to with changes made without their say," Costello said in a recent telephone interview. "I became very passionate about how unions can be an empowering force to equalize the power dynamic, and that's what motivated me and a lot of other workers to get interested in a union."

Costello is among the workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga working to organize the workers to join the United Auto Workers. The UAW is trying to organize the plant despite two previous failed attempts in the past decade to win majority support among the plant's hourly workforce.

The UAW has yet to organize any of the foreign transplant carmakers that have built assembly plants across the South in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and the Carolinas. Historically, workers in Southern states with right-to-work laws and less of a union tradition have been more wary about organized labor and the value of union representation.

But from the pandemic lows reached in 2020, Tennessee has emerged as the state with the fastest rate of growth in union representation over the past three years, according to government data released last month. As the Volunteer State has recruited Nissan, General Motors, Volkswagen and Ford Motor Co. to each build multi-billion-dollar assembly plants across Tennessee, the UAW has gained a foothold in the state and is working to represent thousands of more autoworkers.

(READ MORE: UAW says majority has signed union cards at VW Chattanooga)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said union membership in the past three years has grown in Tennessee by more than 57.5% from 113,000 in 2020 to 178,000 last year.

"We've had the fastest growth in union membership of any state in the country, which I think is a very positive sign for organized labor," Billy Dycus, the Tennessee president of the AFL-CIO, said in a telephone interview. "I think coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have taken more of an interest in having a say in the workplace, and we're seeing more interest in unions, especially among many young people. The UAW and other unions are trying to meet the demand."

The share of workers represented by unions in Tennessee is still 31% below the national average and Tennessee still ranks in the bottom fourth of all states in the share of workers belonging to a labor union. Tennessee last year had the 13th lowest rate of union representation among the states with 6.9% of all workers belonging to unions, according to federal estimates.

Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said 10% of hourly and salaried workers were members of unions in 2023, or around 14.4 million people. That is an all-time low, down from 10.1% of workers in 2022 and less than half the share of unionized workers in 1983, the earliest year for which comparable data is available.

States with the lowest share of union members

Southern and rural states last year had the lowest share of workers who belonged to a labor union. Compared to the U.S. average of 10% of all workers who are union members, the states with the lowest share of union workers in 2023 were:

1. South Carolina: 2.3%.

2. North Carolina: 2.7%.

3. South Dakota: 3.6%.

4. Utah: 4.%.

5. Arizona: 4.2%.

6. Virginia: 4.3%.

6. Louisiana: 4.3%.

8. Texas: 4.5%.

8. Idaho: 4.5%.

10. Georgia: 4.6%.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tennessee had the 13th lowest rate of union membership at 6% of the workforce. Union membership was highest in Hawaii (24.1%), New York (20.6%) and Washington (16.5%)

But U.S. polls show growing enthusiasm for unions. In August, a Gallup poll said 67% of Americans approve of labor unions. That approval has seen a steady rise since 2009, when just 48% of Americans approved of unions, Gallup said.

(READ. MORE: UAW complains about VW in Chattanooga in National Labor Relations Board filing)

The National Labor Relations Board reported 2,594 filings for union representation in its 2023 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That was up 3% from 2022, and the highest number of filings since 2015.

Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, said much of the recent growth in unions in Tennessee came in the public sector with extra funding for many government programs, boosting employment for public school teachers, police and firefighters and hourly employees for the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Additionally, employment at many unionized construction companies grew from the pandemic lows reached three years ago as building activity and hiring grew, Jackson said.

But most Tennesseans still want each worker to decide whether or not they support a labor union, Jackson said. Tennessee is one of 28 states with right-to-work laws that give workers the option of whether or not they want to pay union dues to support a union shop even if a majority of workers where they work vote to join a union.

In 2022, nearly 70% of Tennessee voters adopted a constitutional amendment to enshrine the state's right-to-work law in the constitution.

"I think that vote showed that most Tennesseans think workers should have the right to join a union or not as a fundamental right to work," Jackson said. "The UAW and other unions have been very upfront that there are going to be major efforts to organize in Tennessee, especially after the recent negotiations with GM, Ford and Stellantis on their contract."

Although most VW plants around the world are represented by labor unions and half of the Volkswagen governing council are union members, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga have twice defeated UAW organizing efforts. In 2014, hourly workers voted 712 to 626 against joining the UAW, and in 2019 workers voted more narrowly by a 833-776 margin against UAW representation.

But UAW's current president, Shawn Fain, has mounted a more aggressive effort to organizing Volkswagen and other non-union U.S. auto plants, including Mercedes in Vance, Alabama; Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee; Toyota in Georgetown, Kentucky, and the Tesla plant in Austin, Texas.

Volkswagen and other non-union plants boosted worker wages last year after the Big Three automakers in Detroit agreed to wage increases of at least 25% over the next four years wage under a new contract negotiated with UAW. Fain called the raises at nonunion automakers the "UAW bump," saying they were given in an effort to thwart union organizing efforts.

"As great as these raises are, they still fall far short of what the companies can afford and what autoworkers are worth," Fain said in a statement.

But the Center of Union Facts, a nonprofit group that encourages workers not to join labor unions, launched a campaign in Chattanooga and other targeted UAW cities this week to provide the public with information critical of the UAW .

"There may be a new face at the UAW, but it's not clear that members are any better off," Charyce Bozzello, communications director for the Center for Union Facts, said in an interview Tuesday. "Autoworkers have been burned by self-serving union officials in the past. Our goal is to make sure workers and the public have access to the full picture of what kinds of leadership and ideologies are driving the new UAW."

The anti-union group is putting up billboards directing the public to the center's website that raises questions about labor unions and the UAW.

But union leaders note that workers represented by labor unions, on average, were paid nearly 15.9% more than their non-union counterparts. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,263 in 2023, while nonunion workers had median usual weekly earnings of $1,090, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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