DETROIT (Reuters) -- The UAW, after decades of failed attempts, won its first organizing drive at a foreign-owned auto assembly plant in the South when skilled trades workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., factory voted, 108-44, to join the union.
Federal labor officials and the union late Friday released results of balloting among 152 of 1,450 hourly workers eligible to vote at the factory.
If the UAW survives an appeal, which is expected, by Volkswagen to the National Labor Relations Board, the 164 skilled trades workers covered by the vote will be the first members of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga to gain collective bargaining rights.
“A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said in a statement. "We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. And we believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time."
While the skilled trades bargaining unit of UAW Local 42, who maintain machinery, account for only 11 percent of the plant's hourly workforce, observers said the victory is significant and could serve as a launching pad for the union's efforts to organize and recruit members at other foreign-owned plants in the South.
"It gives the UAW a significant new tool in trying to organize the foreign automakers in the South. Symbolically, it's going to be huge," said Dennis Cuneo, a former automotive executive who has engaged the UAW in past organizing campaigns.
Ahead of the results, Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer and head of the union's organizing efforts, downplayed the significance of the vote and its influence on the UAW's attempts to organize workers at Southern plants including those owned by Nissan Motor Co. and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz.
"To the overall grand plan of the UAW it's probably not monumental, but to those workers, it's a big deal," Casteel said in an interview Friday.
Casteel, and Cantrell, in a separate interview on Thursday, said the two-day vote in Chattanooga that ended Friday evening was a result of the "frustration" among skilled trades workers that don't benefit from collective bargaining for wages and benefits.
"Every case has to be built on the circumstances" at each plant, Casteel said. "We are not filing on Nissan or Mercedes tomorrow, but if our evaluation proved that there was a unit that was ready and strong enough to have an election, certainly we would explore it."
The union narrowly lost an organizing drive and vote in February 2014 in which all of the Chattanooga plant's hourly workers were eligible to cast ballots.
During that vote, Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, whose hometown is Chattanooga, said, "I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new midsize SUV here in Chattanooga."
The UAW's current president, Dennis Williams, and its president in 2014, Bob King, said the threat from Corker as well as "interference" from anti-union groups, including one led by small government advocate Grover Norquist, tainted the election.
Since then, VW has disclosed plans to build the midsized crossover at the Chattanooga plant, and it plans to gradually add as many as 2,000 workers for production that will ramp up from its December 2016 start.
Casteel said the UAW maintains a narrow majority of support among hourly workers at VW's Chattanooga factory, but it is not pursuing a vote by all hourly workers because of concern of "facing the same outside pressure that we faced last time."
VW officials have publicly declined to say that its relationship with the UAW has soured since 2014 when it was clearly the most open to the union among foreign automakers in the South.
It has appealed the decision by an NLRB regional official to allow an election in Chattanooga only because it wants all of the plant's hourly workforce included in any labor representation vote.
In addition, VW said that the timing of the vote was bad, considering its ongoing scandal over diesel emissions.
Casteel and Cantrell pointed out that the UAW filed for the vote in August, more than a month before VW's emissions scandal came to light in mid-September.
The UAW has used its relationship with the German union IG Metall to get into the Chattanooga plant. IG Metall represents thousands of VW workers in Germany and is influential in corporate decisions because of its membership on VW corporate governing boards.
Since the February 2014 vote, VW has established worker representation groups that include UAW members as well as members of an anti-UAW group. Both groups have access to plant managers to discuss work issues but not wage or benefit issues. The UAW has more access to plant managers than the anti-UAW group called American Council of Employees because it has proven to have a great measure of support.