UAW wants to organize non-union auto plants. The South is a big target

Hyundai and Rivian among the automakers where UAW will work to organize employees

The United Auto Workers on Wednesday said employees at non-union auto manufacturers across the U.S. have launched coordinated campaigns to organize their plants and join the union. Some of the biggest targets stretch across the South.

The sprawling campaign to organize workers at 13 non-union automakers follows the UAW’s successful negotiations for new contracts with the Detroit’s Big Three that came after a six-week strike. The simultaneous action targets factories of automakers including BMW, Honda, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, and Toyota.

The organizing push would cover almost 150,000 employees at non-union plants, the UAW said, many of them across the Sun Belt. The push includes Hyundai Motor Group, which has a Hyundai factory in Alabama and a Kia plant in Georgia. Hyundai also is building a $7.6 billion electric vehicle factory near Savannah.

California-based Rivian, meanwhile, operates a non-union plant in Illinois and plans a $5 billion factory near Social Circle east of Atlanta.

“CEOs are raking in billions while auto workers’ real wages are falling,” UAW President Shawn Fain said in a video. “Car prices are through the roof, but workers can’t afford to buy the vehicles they make. Wall Street is making a killing, but communities are being left behind.

“… To all the auto workers out there working without the benefits of a union: Now it’s your turn,” Fain said.

The UAW is riding high off its recent contracts with the Big Three of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the owner of Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep. Since those contracts were reached, several non-union automakers including Hyundai and Toyota have hiked pay in the U.S. in a bid to tamp down potential union pushes.

In a statement, Hyundai said the company “provides excellent wages and benefits and maintains a strong culture of safety, quality and continuous improvement in all our operations.”

“We are proud to employ directly or indirectly more than 114,000 Americans today — a number that will increase significantly as we invest more than $12 billion in Alabama and Georgia to expand our U.S. manufacturing presence,” the statement said. “During Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama’s 18-year manufacturing history in the U.S., our team members have not shown an interest in union representation.”

The UAW represents more than 400,000 workers in numerous sectors, including 146,000 at the Detroit-based automakers. But UAW membership at auto plants has waned as the U.S. auto industry saw growth in non-union factories operated by foreign brands and Tesla in the Sun Belt. As U.S. and foreign brands have announced multibillion-dollar EV factories in Georgia and other Southern states, the UAW’s urgency to penetrate non-union factories has only increased.

In September, a coalition of union groups launched an effort to unionize workers at the future Hyundai Metaplant in Bryan County, where the Korean conglomerate has pledged to hire 8,500 workers by 2031.

Just 5.4% of Georgia’s workforce is represented by unions, compared to 11.3% nationally. Georgia labor laws also discourage organizing, meaning the union push faces long odds in succeeding. But the nation and Georgia have seen an increase in organizing activity, and the Teamsters recently reached a landmark five-year deal for its 340,000 organized workers at Sandy Springs-based UPS.

The UAW efforts were bolstered when President Joe Biden joined picketing workers amid the strike.

In a post on its website, the union said one of its biggest targets is Toyota’s factory in Georgetown, Kentucky, where the automaker makes its popular Camry, RAV 4 and Lexus ES models. Another target is Hyundai’s factory in Montgomery, Alabama.

Construction progress on Hyundai Motor Group's 'Metaplant' near Savannah is shown on Oct. 25, 2023. The $7.6 billion electric vehicle and battery plant is expected to begin production in early 2025.

Credit: Drew Kann

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Credit: Drew Kann

Hyundai is racing to complete its Metaplant and plans to begin production in early 2025, though officials have said it could open late next year. Hyundai has said it expects to produce 300,000 Hyundai, Genesis and Kia models per year at full production and will build batteries at the plant in a joint venture with LG Energy Solution. Hyundai also has a partnership with SK On for a battery plant in Bartow County.

Rivian is expected to break ground on its factory in southern Walton and Morgan counties early next year, though site work has been underway for some time. Rivian declined to comment. Cox Enterprises, owner of the AJC, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.

Flurry of organizing

For decades, the presence of unions has been on the wane in the United States, most especially in the South.

However, the last few years have seen a flurry of organizing activity touching a spectrum of workers in Georgia, from baristas to beermaking, from delivery drivers to doctoral students, some successful, some decidedly not.

Just Tuesday, doctoral candidates at Emory University, the state’s largest private college, voted overwhelmingly to join Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union. Earlier in the month, two Starbucks stores in metro Atlanta — Jonesboro and Dunwoody — voted to join a union.

Georgia, like most Southern states, has historically had a lower share of the workforce represented by unions. The state also has laws that let employees in union shops skip paying union dues, while requiring the union to represent their interests in any dispute.

And even when workers vote for a union, they are not guaranteed a smooth path to a contract.

Also this autumn, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters won a union vote at Quest Diagnostics in Tucker, then lost a similar campaign at Corsair, a gaming equipment maker in Duluth.

Reasons for the recent surge range from the tight labor market, in which some employers struggle to fill positions, to the generational, with young people less tainted by the anti-union sentiments of decades past.

Workers at more than 363 Starbucks stores, including seven in Georgia, have voted for union representation in the past two years. Negotiations with the company have been sporadic at best and no store yet has a union contract.