Workers at Volkswagen‘s Chattanooga, Tennessee factory have voted to join the United Auto Workers (UAW), a landmark victory for union organising in the long hostile US South.

Bloomberg reported the US National Labor Relations Board saying late on Friday the union won by a vote of 2,628 to 985. If the result was formally certified by the agency, VW would be legally required to collectively bargain over working conditions and pay at the plant.

The report noted the VW victory was a breakthrough for the UAW which, after decades of declining membership, was trying to expand by 150,000 workers across 14 companies, including BMW, Toyota and Tesla.

Bloomberg noted UAW membership had fallen from 1.5m in the 1970s to around 370,000 due largely to a failure to win over plants in the South where unions were scarcer, and laws and politicians more hostile.

Union president Shawn Fain had pledged, after record recent contract victories with Detroit’s three big automakers, “we can beat anybody”. The union has launched organising efforts at dozens of plants including a Mercedes factory in Alabama.

Bloomberg said the VW campaign at Volkswagen was the first to get enough traction for the union to seek an election. Workers reportedly said the Ford, General Motors and Stellantis wins last autumn were a major selling point.

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“I want my life to be more like their life,” VW employee Chris Brown told Bloomberg in the lead up to the vote. VW employees also said the union was more effective than it had been in previous ‘organisation’ attempts in deterring anti-union campaigning by management.

Volkswagen workers “should have very high expectations” for what they can win in negotiations over a first union contract, Fain said in an interview Friday afternoon, according to Bloomberg.

“We want to try to follow our pattern” set by last autumn’s contracts, he said.

Workers at the 4,300 worker Tennessee factory cast ballots Wednesday through Friday in an election conducted by the NLRB, Bloomberg said.

“Volkswagen thanks its Chattanooga workers for voting in this election,” the company said Friday night in a brief statement acknowledging employees “voted in favor of union representation in their workplace”.

Bloomberg noted Fain had said he planned to use victories to spawn others.

Volkswagen is “going to be the first domino to fall – I think it’s going to start a chain reaction,” he said on Friday. “Once we show the world that it is possible, I think it’s going to open the door for thousands of other workers, tens of thousands of other workers to join in and to get justice on the job.”

Bloomberg said the group’s next key test was the Mercedes-Benz Group plant in Alabama which would vote on joining the UAW in May.

That may be a more difficult challenge for the union, the report added, with more resistance from management. But even before the victory at VW, Mercedes workers said they expected the campaign there to boost their own efforts.