The UAW’s Next Fight: Organizing Nonunion Companies Like Tesla

After securing historic deals with the Big Three automakers, the UAW is continuing to go on the offensive. It has set its sights on nonunion automakers, from Toyota and Hyundai in the South to Tesla in California.

A Tesla electric car is charged at a charging station at a car park. (Ina Fassbender / AFP via Getty Images)

In speaking about the details of the tentative agreements now secured with the Big Three automakers, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain said, “One of our biggest goals coming out of this contract victory is to organize like we’ve never organized before.”

“When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six,” he concluded.

Those weren’t empty words. The same day that the union announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with General Motors (GM), the final company of the Big Three to reach a deal, news broke that the UAW was already on the move. Bloomberg reported that workers have formed an organizing committee with the UAW at Tesla’s flagship Fremont, California, plant.

Before Tesla purchased the plant in 2010, it was a UAW shop, an unusual joint venture between Toyota and GM. The two companies operated the facility for twenty-five years; GM pulled out during its 2009 bankruptcy proceedings, and Toyota shut the factory down the following year. When Tesla took over, the union was not part of the agreement.

Today the 5.3 million square-foot Fremont plant employs some twenty thousand workers, and while there have been efforts to unionize it with the UAW in recent years, those attempts failed, thanks in part to Elon Musk’s unwavering opposition to unions. When Jose Moran, then a production worker at the Fremont plant, led the charge to organize in 2017, the tech CEO called the effort “morally outrageous” and went after Moran publicly, claiming that he was on the UAW’s payroll and didn’t actually work for Tesla. (Moran is no longer employed at the plant, and Musk has appealed the National Labor Relations Board rulings that declared his actions illegal.) None of that history seems to be stopping the UAW.

“We can beat anybody,” Fain told Bloomberg of taking on Tesla. “I believe it’s doable.”

Taking on Elon

As the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles (EVs) in the United States, Tesla is a prime target for the UAW. The union cannot allow the EV market to remain almost entirely nonunion if it wants to survive. The UAW made major advances toward that goal this year by creating a pathway to fold some of the Big Three’s EV plants into the union’s master agreements, but automakers not covered by those contracts, Tesla foremost among them, remain a major problem.

“The UAW has committed to providing whatever resources are necessary for the campaign,” a person familiar with the efforts at Tesla told Bloomberg. That campaign will be a war, with Musk likely playing a role similar to that of Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Both corporate leaders remain closely involved with the companies they founded, and Musk is more openly antagonistic to worker organizing than Schultz was before his employees began their organizing drive. He also has a higher tolerance for bad press.

Last year, Musk tweeted, “A union is just another corporation.” Earlier this year, he fired dozens of workers at a Tesla facility in New York the day after news broke of their organizing drive with Workers United, which represents Starbucks workers.

In Tesla employees’ favor is first and foremost the immense momentum the UAW has in the sector right now, coming off the heels of a strike that tossed the union’s history of collaboration with the Big Three automakers in favor of a far more aggressive approach. The union’s corruption scandals have been baggage in recent decades, a talking point for any employer fighting a UAW campaign, but the union’s strategy in this year’s strike, led by newly elected reformers like Fain, has put all of that to rest. And then there is the matter of the Tesla plant’s location: should the going get tough, there will be plenty of pro-union public support in the Bay Area.

The Other Nonunions

But Tesla is far from the UAW’s only problem. The number of autoworkers in the United States has not declined in recent decades, but the proportion of those workers who are UAW members has nosedived. Whereas 586,000 autoworkers were UAW members in 1983, that number was 225,000 in 2022. Today, the majority of autoworkers in the US are nonunion. That poses an existential threat for the UAW: unionized automakers can point to their nonunion competitors’ low labor costs as a reason they can’t afford the union’s proposals. Meanwhile, nonunion autoworkers, concentrated in the South, must eke out a life on lower pay and benefits.

The success of this year’s Big Three strike, combined with the massive shifts that followed from the pandemic — tighter labor markets, a more expansive than usual welfare state and the widespread delegitimization of management that largely failed to keep their employees safe — have changed that equation. In the days since the union suspended its strike as members continue to vote on ratification, several automakers have begun following the pattern set by the Big Three, raising wages to try to head off union drives at their own shops.

Honda has announced that it will hike pay for some workers in January 2024 by 11 percent — the same raise that many UAW members at the Big Three will see in the first year of their contract. Toyota is bumping up wages by 9.2 percent for most assembly-line workers. Hyundai says that it will boost wages 25 percent by 2028, matching the increases Big Three workers will see. An internal memo at Subaru’s sole manufacturing plant in the United States, viewed by Bloomberg, says that “many” workers there, too, have asked the company to respond to the Big Three contracts and that it plans to do so later this month.

“UAW: that stands for ‘You Are Welcome,’” said Fain in response to the raises at nonunion automakers. On Facebook, the union addressed workers at nonunion plants directly, stating that thousands of such employees have contacted the union in the past ninety days.

“If you work at Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Tesla, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mazda, Rivian, or any other automaker: a better life is out there,” wrote the union. “It’s up to you to take action. Join our movement, and join the UAW.” The post ended with a link to a contact form for nonunion autoworkers.

Breaking Into the Organized Block

In addition to Tesla, Honda, Hyundai, and Subaru, the shortlist of possible targets includes Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant, which the UAW failed to unionize in 2019. Many other companies have nonunion Southern shops: Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and BMW have plants in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. (Workers at one of the few UAW auto shops in the South, a Mercedes-Benz parts supplier in Alabama, recently concluded a nearly month-long strike). And there are unorganized plants outside the South: in Indiana, for instance, thousands of autoworkers are nonunion.

Now is the time for the union to go on the offensive in the nonunion auto sector. As UAW members at the Big Three continue holding ratification votes on their tentative agreements, their counterparts at nonunion shops are already using the gains secured at those bargaining tables to get more for themselves. All indications suggest that the UAW is making up for time lost under prior corrupt union leadership.

As for the nonunion automakers, if they think that raising wages will be enough to ward off union drives, they will almost certainly be proven wrong. That move has worked in the past, but it is a new era.