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The last thing Elon Musk wants right now is barrelling toward Tesla

The UAW has said its set its sights on Tesla.
The UAW has said its set its sights on Tesla.Michael Swensen/Getty Images and Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
  • The United Auto Workers union won a critical vote at a plant in Tenessee.

  • After a massive strike last year, the union set out to organize more factories that aren't represented, including Tesla.

  • The union's white whale is Tesla, workers of which have never been represented by a union.

Volkswagen workers in Tennessee voted Friday to join the United Auto Workers union in a huge victory for the once-embattled union as it works toward another run at organizing Tesla.

After two failed attempts by the UAW in Chattanooga in recent years, Friday's victory represents a turning point for the 89-year-old union. After years of dwindling membership, a messy federal criminal investigation, and high-profile automotive industry organizing failures, UAW President Shawn Fain is aiming to usher in a new era for his union.

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The counting of the votes by the National Labor Relations Board continued late into Friday night, with Reuters reporting that a final tally of 2,628 to 985, or 73% of the votes, were in favor of unionizing.

After a 46-day strike that hit all three Detroit car companies simultaneously last year yielded some of the richest UAW contracts in recent memory, Fain said the UAW was just getting started.

A massive drive has since gone into full force as the union encourages thousands of non-union auto workers to sign union cards, targeting nearly 150,000 US auto workers across 13 companies — including those outside Detroit and, most notably, Tesla.

This week's victory at Volkswagen makes history as the UAW's first successful organizing campaign at a foreign car company in the South. After the election at Volkswagen, the UAW is pressing deeper into the South next month for another unionization vote at Mercedes-Benz's factory in Alabama.

The warm-up for Tesla

Conquering the South is just a warm-up for the big event for the UAW: Organizing Tesla.

Tesla has never held a union vote at any of its US facilities. The electric car company has long been an organizing target for the UAW, but aggressive anti-union culture and rhetoric from CEO Elon Musk have stymied efforts up until now.

The UAW's previous push at Tesla fizzled out by 2019 as a federal criminal investigation stole union leaders' attention, sent two previous UAW presidents to prison, and dented the public's trust in the union. The UAW has since undergone a government-led reform and Fain became the union's first democratically elected president in March 2023.

Some Tesla workers were in the early stages of forming a union during the UAW's massive strike this past fall, a union official told The New York Times. While Tesla initially benefited from these work stoppages, labor experts have warned that momentum for the UAW at other automakers could spell trouble for Tesla in the long run.

A successful UAW campaign is the last thing Elon Musk needs

Any major clash with the UAW would only add to Tesla's growing list of hurdles this year. After years of growth, Tesla reported declining deliveries in the first quarter of 2024, an early sign that not even the EV leader is immune to an industry-wide softening in demand for battery-powered cars.

On top of that, a year of slashing prices on its cars to appeal to more frugal EV shoppers has taken a toll on the company's industry-leading profit margins.

Tesla already increased wages for factory workers after the UAW's new raises went into effect, a move labor experts have said is designed to quell interest in union activity. Many Tesla workers already make more per hour than their unionized counterparts.

And in Sweden, Tesla is already locked in a dispute with striking mechanics that has worried investors since the start of the year.

Read the original article on Business Insider