To Challenge UAW’s Influence Post-Detroit Victories, Volkswagen Union Vote in Tennessee 

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will decide this week if they want to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. This is an important test to see how much influence the union has.

If the workers vote to join, it will be the first time the UAW has successfully organized a major carmaker that isn’t part of General Motors, Ford Motor, or Chrysler’s parent company, Stellantis. It will also show that the union’s efforts to organize workers at 13 different carmakers across the U.S. are gaining momentum, especially after they won big contracts with the Detroit companies in 2023.

But if the vote fails and the workers decide not to join, it will be another setback for the UAW. They’ve tried before to organize workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, but it hasn’t worked out in the past.

This would also be a blow to UAW President Shawn Fain, who was elected in 2023 after the union was rocked by a corruption scandal involving its former leaders.

Volkswagen workers’ drive: Grassroots effort gains momentum, targeting 13 non-union automakers. (Credits: Volkswagen)

Over 4,000 Volkswagen workers are eligible to vote, and they’ll start casting their votes on Wednesday. The vote will be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, and it just needs a simple majority to pass.

Fain and others believe this week’s vote is the best chance the UAW has had to organize the Volkswagen plant, especially after the successful contracts and strikes at the Detroit carmakers last year, which made Fain a well-known figure in the union world.

Stephen Silvia, author of “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants,” highlights the significance of the UAW’s recent successful contracts with Detroit’s major automakers in the current union drive at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. Silvia believes this effort presents the UAW’s best chance yet to succeed.

Factors such as political climate, company messaging, and leadership under Shawn Fain contribute to a more favorable environment for unionization compared to past attempts.

Volkswagen, acknowledging its unionized workforce at non-U.S. plants, respects its Chattanooga workers’ right to decide on unionization. The company has clarified information on pay and benefits and launched the “Vote for the workplace you want” campaign to encourage employee participation.

Mercedes-Benz workers file NLRB paperwork, joining UAW’s expanding efforts beyond Big Three automakers. (Credits: Mercedes-Benz workers of Ontario)

VW emphasizes its support for a fair democratic process through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) vote, ensuring all team members have the opportunity to cast a secret ballot. The company takes pride in offering some of the best-paying jobs in the region and maintaining a positive working environment in Chattanooga.

In Tennessee’s right-to-work state, there’s less political pressure compared to previous union drives at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. Also, there are fewer organized efforts against the union this time around. Recently, a group named “VW Chatt workers, for VW Chatt workers” has started opposing UAW organizing, running a website called “Still No UAW.”

A member of this group, who chose to remain anonymous due to potential repercussions if the union succeeds, expressed concerns about potential issues like layoffs if the UAW negotiates more benefits for workers. He emphasized that Volkswagen might not offer the same wages and benefits as the Big Three automakers (GM, Ford, and Stellantis) in the U.S.

This worker, with over 10 years of experience at the plant, noted the differences in scale between Volkswagen and the Big Three, suggesting that contract negotiations won’t be identical.

The current UAW organizing drive feels distinct from past efforts due to reduced external political pressure, new union leadership, different organizing tactics, and increased support from new plant workers.

Workers at the VW plant filed for the election in March after a supermajority signed union cards, reaching a majority in early February after launching a public campaign to join the UAW.

Unlike previous drives, this union effort is grassroots-led by plant workers rather than international union leaders, which has helped with messaging, according to Silvia.

In 2019, VW workers at the Chattanooga plant rejected union representation in a close vote.

Isaac Meadows, an assembly worker with 14 months of experience at the plant, emphasized the need for a voice in the workplace. He highlighted issues like pay, benefits, and time off as top priorities.

VW production workers at the plant earn between $23.40 and $32.40 per hour, with a four-year ramp-up to top wages, according to the company.

Joe Biden with UAW

This year, wages negotiated by the UAW for Detroit carmakers range from about $25 to $36 per hour for production workers, with expected increases to over $42 per hour by 2028. Isaac Meadows highlighted the disparity, noting that workers at Volkswagen are valued less than those at Ford, for instance, building the Ford Explorer.

The UAW has been using these higher wages and benefits as incentives for non-unionized auto workers to consider joining the union.

Volkswagen is among the 13 non-union automakers targeted by the UAW after securing significant contracts with Detroit automakers. This organizing drive spans nearly 150,000 autoworkers across various companies.

Recently, workers at Mercedes Benz’s Alabama assembly plant filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to formally join the UAW. Shawn Fain, the UAW President, encouraged these workers, emphasizing the potential for improved working conditions and better lives through unionization.

Fain has expressed ambitions to expand beyond the Big Three automakers and include the “Big Five or Big Six” by the time current contracts with Detroit automakers expire.

Sajda Parveen
Sajda Parveen
Sajda Praveen is a market expert. She has over 6 years of experience in the field and she shares her expertise with readers. You can reach out to her at [email protected]
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