UAW Organizing Drive Bears First Fruits at VW Chattanooga

Labor expert Harley Shaiken says the key to the UAW’s efforts to organize nonunion plants is the success of last fall’s “stand-up” strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

Joseph Szczesny

March 19, 2024

4 Min Read
VW ID.4 preproduction Chattanooga 21
Preproduction versions of Volkswagen ID.4 BEV come off line in Chattanooga, TN, in 2021.

Only three months after launching an ambitious initiative to organize workers at nonunion auto plants across the country, the UAW is setting up first major test of the campaign by calling on the National Labor Relations Board to schedule a vote on union representation at Volkswagen of America’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, TN.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert from the University of California-Berkeley, notes the UAW has not specified how many of VW Chattanooga’s 3,600 workers have asked for union representation. But it clearly has a “supermajority” of workers, moving it closer to a victory that could kill the notion the UAW cannot organize nonunion auto plants in the South.

According to the UAW, efforts to organize production workers at Chattanooga were narrowly defeated in 2014 and 2019 following anti-union campaigns led by the National Right to Work Foundation, the local Chamber of Commerce and other elements of the Tennessee’s business community and the state’s Republican political establishment.

Even then the UAW still won an election among the plant’s skilled-trades employees. But Volkswagen, with support from an NLRB stocked with appointees of Republican President Donald Trump, refused to bargain with what it described as “splinter” union, which chose to withdraw unfair labor practice charges against VW in return for the second plant-wide vote in 2019.

This time around, the UAW enjoys the backing of President Joe Biden.

“I congratulate the Volkswagen autoworkers in Chattanooga who filed for a union election. As one of the world’s largest automakers, many Volkswagen plants internationally are unionized… I believe American workers, too, should have a voice at work. The decision whether to join a union belongs to the workers,” Biden says in a statement issued by the White House Press Office.

For its part, Volkswagen says: “This morning, we received notice that the UAW has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to determine representation of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. We respect our workers’ right to a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests. We will fully support an NLRB vote, so every team member has a chance to vote in privacy in this important decision.

“The election timeline will be determined by the NLRB. Volkswagen is proud of our working environment in Chattanooga that provides some of the best-paying jobs in the area.”

Shaiken says the key to the UAW effort this time is the success of the “stand-up” strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis last fall. “I think this is a very big step,” says Shaiken, who notes the union also has organizing drives underway at Mercedes-Benz (pictured, below) and Hyundai in Alabama; Honda in Indiana; and Toyota in Missouri. “It’s safe to say they have real momentum.”

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Shaiken cautions there still are several “imponderables,” particularly whether VW will seek to delay the NLRB-supervised vote. But the automaker’s top management will also be under pressure from its unions in Europe, South Africa and South America to avoid an all-out battle with the UAW.

VW vehicle prices have risen 37% in the past three years while workers’ wages lag far behind those of the Detroit Three. Workers at Chattanooga build the VW Atlas, Atlas Sport and the electric ID.4.

The automaker says it granted an 11% pay raise for Chattanooga production team members on the heels of the UAW’s 25% wage hike won during last fall’s “stand-up strikes.”

But Shaiken says it’s not only about wages and the economic gains the UAW won at GM, Ford and Stellantis: “It’s also about health and safety concerns and quality of life issues.”

In a new video posted on the UAW website, VW workers say they need the protection of a union contract.

“Today, we are one step closer to making a good job at Volkswagen into a great career,” Isaac Meadows, a production team member in assembly, says in the video.

“Right now, we miss time with our families because so much of our paid-time-off is burned up during the summer and winter shutdowns. We shouldn’t have to choose between our family and our job. By winning our union and a real voice at Volkswagen, we can negotiate for more time with our families.”

Adds Yolanda Peoples, like Meadows a production team member in assembly: “I come from a UAW family, so I’ve seen how having our union enables us to make life better on the job and off. We are a positive force in the plant. When we win our union, we’ll be able to bargain for a safer workplace, so people can stay on the job and the company can benefit from our experience. When my father retired as a UAW member, he had something to fall back on. VW workers deserve the same.”

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