In a significant victory for union efforts in the South, United Auto Workers has been certified to represent at least 45% of workers at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., a step just short of full collective bargaining rights.
The vote by workers at the plant, certified late Monday, means the UAW qualifies as a "top-tier" labor group entitled to hold meetings on plant property and meet regularly with company representatives.
"This is not a union recognition vote -- it doesn't involve collective bargaining," said Arthur Wheaton, a professor at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. "But it does allow the UAW to be an employee organization representing a percentage of the workers."
The vote comes after years of failed UAW attempts to unionize foreign-owned automakers in the South, including the Chattanooga plant.
A vote of greater than 50% under a certified National Labor Relations Board election is required for full union representation, according to Wheaton.
Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer, says the union's local leadership "is ready to move forward with additional conversations with the company."
In a statement, Casteel said the UAW would accept VW's offer to meet biweekly with top company officials at the plant.
"We will be working towards the process of collective bargaining with the company," Casteel said.
In February, the plant's workers voted 712 to 626 (53% to 47%) against UAW representation.
In July, the union formed UAW Local 42, an employee organization at the plant whose members do not pay union dues or enjoy collective bargaining rights. The UAW formed a similar local at a Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Scott Wilson, a corporate spokesman for VW in Chattanooga, said in a statement: "The company will reach out to the UAW in the near future to start the discussion regarding the opportunities available to them under the policy."
Under federal law, the UAW may not call for a union certification vote at the plant until February -- 12 months after the latest vote in Chattanooga, according to Wheaton.
The South has the country's lowest rates of unionized workers.
The four states with the lowest rates are all in the South, led by North Carolina at 3%, according to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tennessee's rate is 6.1%, well below the U.S. average of 11.3% -- down from 20.1% in 1983.
The UAW represents about 390,000 workers, down from 1.5 million in 1979.