The UAW, making good on its vow to begin recruiting members at non-union car and battery factories in the West and South, says more than 1,000 workers at Volkswagen of America in Chattanooga, TN, have signed authorization cards asking for union representation.
More than 30% of the VW workers in Chattanooga have signed the cards, most of them electronically, in what the UAW describes as a “breakthrough” in the union’s new campaign to organize some 150,000 hourly employees at 13 non-union automakers including Tesla, Toyota and Nissan.
“People are standing up like never before,” says Steve Cochran, a skilled team member and a leader of the workers promoting the union at Volkswagen. “There are a lot of young workers in the plant now and this generation wants respect. They’re not okay with mistreatment by management. They see what’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon. They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay and a better life.”
The union’s goal is to get 70% of workers to sign authorization cards and ask for recognition or force a vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
VW says it respects “the right of our workers to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace,” according to a Reuters report.
VW vehicle prices have risen 37% in the past three years while workers’ wages lag far behind those of their Detroit Three counterparts, the UAW contends. Chattanooga’s 3,800 employees build the Atlas, Atlas Sport and electric ID.4.
The German automaker approved 11% raises for Chattanooga production team members shortly after UAW members last month ratified new, 4½-year contracts with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis including 25% increases in base wages. A compressed wage progression timeline at VW begins in February.
For the union, VW’s Chattanooga plant has been a battleground for nearly a decade, with the UAW losing two of three elections supervised by the NLRB.
Production workers at Chattanooga narrowly voted against the UAW in elections held in 2014 and again in 2019 when Tennessee’s conservative political establishment used the UAW corruption scandal as a wedge to beat back the union’s organizing drive, which was turned back by 57 votes out of more than 1,700 cast.
A group of 160 maintenance workers voted for UAW representation in a separate election held in 2015, but VW refused to negotiate with what it called a splinter unit. The UAW later agreed to withdraw an unfair labor practices complaint over the company’s unwillingness to bargain and agreed to the second plant-wide election in 2019 rather than take the case before the full NLRB dominated by appointees of then-President Donald Trump.
The union, however, maintains a base of support in Chattanooga where railroad unions have been part of the community’s history. Additionally, the UAW can expect support from IG Metall, the big German metalworkers’ union, which is mounting a concerted effort to organize Tesla workers in Germany.
“Huge contract wins and overwhelming public support also are big factors. The UAW has cleaned up its image and improved their messaging tremendously,” Cornell University labor expert Arthur Wheaton says in an email to Wards.
In its new initiative, the UAW has produced a campaign video stressing non-union workers’ right to organize and counter anti-union efforts by management under the National Labor Relations Act.
The UAW initiative is already prompting workers to speak out publicly in favor of unionization despite concerns about retaliation by management.
“When I’m looking at a weld, I think about my grandkids in the backseat of that car,” says Vicky Holloway, a production team member in body shop quality. “I want to know we’re doing the job right. But the company isn’t putting people into jobs because they have the experience or the qualifications.”
Assembler Billy Quigg adds: “I like working at VW. I’m proud to make these vehicles, but I’m not proud of the way we’re treated. The forced overtime on Saturdays, the lack of time off, it keeps us away from our families. That’s why we’re building the union. When people have a good job and time to spend with our families, we’ll help the whole community thrive.”
The UAW says the growing support among non-union autoworkers is building on the success of the 46-day targeted strikes at the Detroit Three in September and October. Non-union automakers have hurried to make marginal improvements to pay packages, but wages, benefits and working conditions fall far short of what the unionized automakers are providing, the UAW says.