German Union Backs UAW Organizing Effort at VW Chattanooga

The IG Metall metalworkers union, which participated in the UAW’s failed organizing drives at Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019, also has a stake in the UAW’s new fight in Tennessee.

Joseph Szczesny

December 20, 2023

4 Min Read
IG Metall pro-VW rally 2018-01-30
IG Metall union members in Germany rallied support for UAW’s unsuccessful organizing effort at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, TN, assembly plant in 2018.

As the campaign to unionize workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN, picks up momentum, the UAW has turned to a key ally for help: IG Metall, Germany’s big metalworkers union.

The UAW this week is filing additional unfair labor practice charges against Volkswagen of America, claiming the automaker is attempting to intimidate nonunion employees at the Tennessee plant. Union President Shawn Fain visited Chattanooga on Monday with a delegation of VW workers and community and faith leaders to present a letter demanding VW management change its tactics.

“We are deeply concerned by the stories Chattanooga workers have shared with us regarding Volkswagen’s efforts to stop them – in some cases illegally – from exercising their rights,” the letter states.

VW says it “respects our workers’ right to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace. We are committed to providing clear, transparent and timely information that helps educate our employees and managers on their legal rights and obligations.” 

IG Metall, which participated in the UAW’s failed organizing drives at Chattanooga in 2014 and 2019, also has a stake in the UAW’s new fight in Tennessee. IG Metall, Germany’s largest labor union, represents 125,000 VW workers.

Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble,” a study of the union’s organizing efforts at nonunion companies, says in an email to Wards, “I would anticipate IG Metall supporting the organizing drive at Volkswagen again.”

In Silvia’s view, IG Metall is uncomfortable with VW having nonunion plants in North America. “They spent significant sums to help out the UAW with organizing – more than 1 million euros ($1.1 million). I don’t think they will be spending that kind of money this time, however,” he says.

The issue has taken on added significance since VW’s supervisory board earlier this year approved construction of a new assembly plant in South Carolina for the company’s fledgling Scout brand, which is scheduled to open in 2026.

At the same time, IG Metall is in the middle of a major battle with Tesla over union representation at the EV maker’s Gigafactory (pictured, below) outside Berlin, Silvia notes. The German union has no interest in seeing a nonunion labor relations model spread in the auto industry, he says.

Tesla Berlin screenshot.png

Tesla Berlin screenshot

Silvia expects the conservative political establishment in Tennessee to oppose a new VW organizing drive “with full force” as it did in response to the UAW’s earlier efforts.

The big question is “whether the workforce will be as receptive this time because the novelty of political intervention has worn off,” Silvia notes. He also suggests the UAW should learn from past mistakes.

The UAW’s organizing bid in 2014 was “methodical and top-down” and focused on persuading management to remain neutral. “This did not convince enough workers to vote for the union. The skilled-trades organizing drive won a majority in 2015 but got tangled up in the courts when VW refused to bargain. The UAW attempted an “ambush election” in 2019, but the company used legal tactics to delay a vote while it mobilized to oppose unionization, Silvia recounts.

The UAW now has a new leadership team both at the top and in the organizing department, allowing the union to turn the page on the corruption scandals of the 2010s and take full advantage of the momentum from this fall’s successful strikes against the Detroit Three automakers, Silvia says.

“In other words, the UAW has a reasonable shot at winning a third plant-wide representation election,” he says. “That said, recognition elections are always challenging. However, the previous drives at VW were longshots. Forty-seven percent voted yes in 2014. A big majority voted yes for the small skilled trades unit in 2015, and 48% voted yes in the 2019 drive. It makes sense for the UAW to start (again) in Chattanooga, given the previous results.

“There are 5,000 employees at the plant. Roughly 4,000 are eligible to unionize. So, the UAW will want at least 2,500 (authorization) cards before asking for a representation election,” Silvia says. The union says more than 1,000 Chattanooga workers have signed authorization cards.

Fain is seeking to parlay the recent successful negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis into bringing workers at VW and other nonunion automakers, most in the southern U.S., into the UAW fold.

“Once auto workers everywhere make a fair wage, with decent benefits and real job security, companies won’t be able to pit auto worker against auto worker to compete with one another for more profit,” Fain says in a Facebook Live message to nonunion auto workers.

“As long as we’re divided – by union status, by company, by state – we’re all weaker. And the only way we unite in this fight against corporate greed is through a union contract. Not just for the Big 3, but for auto workers everywhere,” he says.

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