CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – A few minutes before 8 p.m. Friday, when voting was set to end at the Volkswagen plant, a pair of employees opposing the union and wearing blue T-shirts pulled up the last of their campaign signs on the quiet road leading to the plant.
The sun was beginning to set behind the boxy plant where Volkswagen builds its Atlas SUVs and Passat sedans. Behind it, the hills of east Tennessee rippled in the distance.
This area, the South in general, has historically been resistant to unionization efforts. On Friday night, that was put to the test at the lone Volkswagen plant in the world where workers were not represented by a union.
The weeks of campaigning, the ads on the pop and rock radio stations, the leaflets handed out at the plant, the statements by local politicians opposing the union, and the election that started Wednesday and ran until Friday was about to come to an end.
As the ballots were counted, some VW workers waited outside in the parking lot.
One group of workers that opposed the union set up folding lawn chairs and a pair of cornhole boards lay unused. The plant’s security, though, asked a handful of reporters to leave VW property.
Of the workers eligible to vote, 1,609 cast secret paper ballots that asked whether or not they wanted the United Auto Workers to represent them, according to a statement by VW. The results came down to a difference of 57 votes: 776 Volkswagen employees approved of the union but 833 did not.
“Our employees have spoken. Pending certification of the results by the NLRB and a legal review of the election, Volkswagen will respect the decision of the majority,” Frank Fischer, president and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with elected officials and business leaders in Tennessee.”
According to Mitchell Smith, regional director of UAW whose region includes Tennessee, local and state politicians interfered with the election by casting doubt on the ability for VW to continue receiving its incentives for doing business in Chattanooga.
“If you get told that you may lose a product or not get incentives for a product and you have to think about how do I vote on my future by what the state is telling me? That’s interference,” Smith told reporters. “I mean, that’s what that is. That’s socialism, when a government is trying to run a company, innit?”
In late April, for instance, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, spoke against unionizing with VW employees in the plant. He has said it would have made Tennessee less competitive if Volkswagen workers unionized with UAW.
A spokesperson for Lee did not return requests for comment for this story.
The vote comes at a time when the majority of Americans, about 55%, support the idea of unions, according to the Pew Research Center, yet the number actually in unions are in a slow decline. According to Pew numbers, only 10.7% of American workers belong to a union.
According to Brian Rothenburg, spokesman for UAW, about 13% of the union’s members hail from the South.
This is the second time in five years that the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voted and rejected a union. In 2014, workers at the plant voted not to unionize in a 712 to 626 vote.
A group of maintenance workers, however, then voted to unionize. But according to Rothenburg, VW refused to negotiate with the group and the case dragged on for almost four years. In order to bring a unionization vote to the whole plant, the maintenance workers dropped their case.
“There’s a problem with American labor law right now,” Rothenburg said. “It is geared towards lawyers and legal games more than it is geared toward protecting workers to have a free and fair shot to have a union.”
Maury Nicely, an attorney representing Southern Momentum, a nonprofit that sought to amplify the voices of VW workers opposed to UAW representation, said in an interview before voting began that once it was over, the workers he talked to want to return to making cars.
“We’re not in a position of gloating or celebrating if this happens,” he said.