News & Commentary

April 21, 2024

Gilbert Placeres

Gilbert Placeres is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s News & Commentary, a historic union election win by the UAW at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, the Department of Labor cracks down on child labor, and New York enacts a payroll tax credit for journalists.

In a historic breakthrough, the UAW has won a union election among Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, TN. Workers emphatically voted to unionize 2,628 to 985 (73%). This marks the first unionized foreign-owned auto assembly plant and the first auto plant in the South to unionize through an election since the 1940s. The victory comes after unionization elections failed narrowly at the plant in 2014 and 2019 and is a part of the UAW capitalizing on the momentum built by the landmark contracts it won at the Big Three automakers last year. As Yolanda Peoples, a member of the organizing committee explained, “When they went on strike, we paid close attention just to see what happened. Once they won their contract, it changed a lot of people from anti-union to pro-union members.”

Another worker involved in the organizing, Angel Gomez, reported that political divisions were the primary hurdle for the organizing campaign. An anti-union website,, was set up, prominently featuring a social media post by former President Donald Trump criticizing UAW President Shawn Fain and tying support for the union to support for the Democratic Party. As Sunah and Everest have covered recently, Republican lawmakers in the state campaigned strongly against the union and the governors of six Southern states put out a joint statement warning that joining the UAW would threaten jobs in the state. However, in Gomez’s view, these tactics were unsuccessful: “People for the most part are smartening up. And they’re not paying attention to the political crap.”

Some labor experts predict the victory may propel the UAW to replicate the success at other auto manufacturers in the South, with another election scheduled at an Alabama Mercedes-Benz plant in mid-May. The UAW has also collected representation authorization cards from 30% of workers at a Hyundai plant in Alabama and Toyota plant in Missouri, enough to petition for an election, although it has not done so yet. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein compared the Chattanooga victory to the Union Army’s Civil War victory in Chattanooga in 1863, which Lincoln declared the “the gateway to the south”: “With UAW’s win at Volkswagen, another gateway to the South has been opened. No longer will the wage-and-benefit standards of the million-strong auto workforce in the U.S. be set by the non-union portion of the industry. A militant and increasingly powerful UAW will set the standard.” If these unions continue taking hold in the South, they could also have spillover effects in the rest of the country, including through social encouragement and by increasing the bargaining power of other workers.

The Department of Labor is focusing on cracking down on child labor, as reflected by two recent actions. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su requested a “modest” budget increase from the House Appropriations subcommittee to boost the Department’s child labor law enforcement (and workforce development) programs. “We are seeing 13-year-olds working the night shift on the kill floor of meatpacking plants working with toxic chemicals doing cleaning,” said Su, and so the DOL seeks to “increase boots on the ground, to increase the number of investigators in the field.” Further, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda is now seeking disgorgement remedies, which require companies to forfeit profits made through illegal conduct, in child labor cases. Recently, the DOL obtained a $1.5 million disgorgement remedy from components manufacturer Tuff Torq Corp., calculated from 30 days of profits tied to the company’s use of illegal child labor. The Department sees escalating the toughness of the remedies sought as necessary to counteract an alarming trend of minors working in dangerous conditions. Last year, the Department reported nearly 6,000 minors working in illegal conditions in the country, a nearly 50% increase from 2022.

In New York, a first-of-its-kind tax credit was included in the state budget for the payrolls of local news organizations. The tax break is designed to bolster the struggling industry, especially independently owned publications, by effectively subsidizing a portion of a journalist’s salary. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Senator Brad Holyman-Sigal, affirmed that “A thriving local news industry is vital to the health of our democracy.” The $30 million a year program was supported by the Empire State Local News Coalition and New York unions.

Enjoy OnLabor’s fresh takes on the day’s labor news, right in your inbox.