Citing a surge in pro-union sentiment among employees at non-union manufacturers, the UAW is kicking off an ambitious campaign to recruit new members among the 150,000 workers at more than a dozen auto plants in the southern and western U.S.
According to the UAW, thousands of non-union auto workers are signing cards at the new UAW webpage, UAW.org/join, and asking to join the UAW. The organizing drive, the UAW says, is aimed at employees of 13 companies: BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
The effort to organize the entire non-union auto sector at once is “unprecedented” and reflects “a new era of working-class leverage and workplace organizing,” the UAW says in a press release.
On its organizing website, the UAW promises confidentiality to any workers expressing an interest in joining the union. But the UAW says several of the workers interested in seeing their plants organized are speaking out publicly despite the potential for harassment.
One target of the campaign is Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, assembly complex with 7,800 employees, the UAW says.
After UAW members won record contracts at the Detroit Three, Toyota moved to raise wages at its plants across the U.S. But Jeff Allen, a 29-year team member at Georgetown who’s had two work-related surgeries, says the raise won’t dissuade workers from organizing.
“We’ve lost so much since I started here, and the raise won’t make up for that,” says Allen. “It won’t make up for the health benefits we’ve lost, it won’t make up for the wear and tear on our bodies. We still build a quality vehicle. People take pride in that, but morale is at an all-time low.
“A union contract is the only way to win what’s fair.”
Lori Paton started working at electric-vehicle start-up Rivian at its Normal, IL, assembly plant (pictured, above) in October 2022. “The company likes to tell us we’re making the plane while flying it, and that explains a lot about the problems we have,” says Paton, a team member in the Chassis 3 group. “We have all sorts of safety issues. Turnover is terrible. Every group has a story about a new employee who did not make it to first break. The lack of safety, the low pay, the forced overtime, there are so many reasons we need to be union.”
The UAW’s ambitious organizing drive sets up a potentially massive confrontation between the union and the non-union companies, who are certain to enlist anti-union consultants and law firms that specialize in keeping organized labor at bay, according to Arthur Wheaton, a labor expert from Cornell University.
Says Michelle Kaminski, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations: “Going forward, it is quite possible that (UAW President Shawn) Fain’s approach will result in more successful organizing drives for the UAW. He is demonstrating a willingness to fight to get employees the best possible wages, benefits and working conditions.
“Employees in non-union automotive firms, and in other industries, may see this and think they want this, too. However, the labor law context in the U.S. still makes it very challenging to form new unions here.”
Fain says in a new video released for the organizing drive that auto workers face the same issues whether they work for the Detroit Three; German automakers VW, Mercedes and BMW, which face strong unions in their home country but have no labor contract in the U.S.; Asian companies such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Subaru and Kia; or in the emerging taxpayer-supported EV sector with companies such as Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.
“Workers across the country, from the West to the Midwest and especially in the South, are reaching out to join our movement and to join the UAW,” Fain says in the video. “So go to uaw.org/join. The money is there. The time is right. And the answer is simple. You don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck.
“You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your rent or feed your family while the company makes billions. A better life is out there.”
Non-union autoworkers lag their UAW counterparts in wages, benefits and rights on the job, Fain adds.
“Hyundai would be so much better with a union,” says Kissy Cox, a production worker at the company’s plant in Montgomery, AL (pictured, above). “I’m on workers’ comp right now because I just had carpal tunnel surgery. In my area, we struggle to keep a full staff because so many people are out injured.
“Being in the union, having a real say for safer jobs, it would be a better way of life for all of us,” she says.
“We saw what the UAW members won, and it started us thinking that we as workers are worth a lot more than our company currently values us at,” says Isaac Meadows, who started nine months ago on the assembly line at VW in Chattanooga, TN.
The tight labor market since the pandemic is driving workers to demand more from the non-union automakers, according to employees calling for UAW representation.
“The company is having trouble hiring people,” says Jeremy Kimbrell, a measurement machine operator at the Mercedes-Benz Tuscaloosa assembly plant in Alabama. “They introduced two (wage) tiers here, so they’re having such a hard time keeping the new workers. It’s just a revolving door.
“A whole lot of people who never talked union before, they know we have to stand up. They’re saying, ‘Give me a card to sign.’”