Volkswagen Workers Hope to Launch the UAW’s Next Winning Campaign

After its landmark strike against the Big Three, the UAW placed thirteen nonunion automakers on notice. The first of these drives has just gone public, with 1,000 workers signing union cards at a Volkswagen plant that’s twice resisted unionization.

Members of the United Auto Workers on strike in Flint, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Today, workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant announced their third bid to unionize plant-wide with the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Riding the momentum of its strike of the Big Three automakers, the UAW now wants to double its numbers in the auto industry by adding 150,000 workers at companies that have long avoided unionization. Thirteen nonunion automakers are on notice: Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, Volkswagen (VW), and electric vehicle producers Rivian, Tesla, and Lucid.

The union says it has been inundated with calls and online sign-ups by workers at these firms. The Volkswagen drive is the first to go public, after one thousand workers signed union cards.

The UAW’s two previous attempts to organize the full Chattanooga plant fell short narrowly. In 2014, workers lost by eighty-six votes. In 2019, the union came even closer, losing by just fifty-seven votes with 93 percent turnout. There were 1,700 workers at the plant then. Some 3,800 workers today build the Atlas and Cross Sport SUVs, as well as the electric ID.4.

In 2015, a smaller group of skilled trades workers won their election by a vote of 108 to 44, joining UAW Local 42, which had formed as a minority union following the 2014 loss. But the company refused to negotiate with the smaller unit, delaying in the courts. The UAW quietly jettisoned the effort, filing instead for the full unit in 2019.

After the 2019 defeat, workers kept the flame of organizing alive, meeting regularly and running a petition for the right to use their paid time off outside the company’s annual weeklong maintenance shutdown.

Why Now?

“You either keep pushing or die,” Steve Cochran, a skilled trades worker in the battery plant’s maintenance department, told NPR in October. Cochran was the president of the minority union, UAW Local 42.

The previous VW campaigns came while the UAW was on the defensive and often under attack publicly. Cochran told NPR how outside antiunion groups tried to smear the union drive in 2019 by tying the organizing to the FBI’s raid of the home of UAW President Gary Jones, who was later convicted of embezzling union funds and tax evasion.

The losses occurred while the union was under the control of the Administration Caucus, which members finally voted out of office last March. The new leaders, who ran on a platform of “no concessions, no corruption, no tiers,” promised a completely different organizing philosophy and practice. They won.

Under President Shawn Fain, the union is on the offense, having won its best contracts in decades at the Big Three. The new leaders have embraced creative tactics, militancy, and public battles with the major auto companies, at a time when automakers are raking in profits.

“We are going to organize like we’ve never organized before,” said Fain at a November Senate hearing chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, “because our strike has shown the Nissan worker in Alabama, the Volkswagen worker in Tennessee, and the Toyota worker in Kentucky, and the Tesla worker in California that when union members win, the entire working class wins.”

Record Profits, No Contracts

A big talking point during the recent strike was the quarter-trillion dollars in profits the Big Three have made in the past decade. Now the UAW is spotlighting the profits of nonunion companies like Volkswagen, which has made $184 billion in the past ten years, according to the UAW.

The new organizing offensive comes as auto companies are opening up new electric vehicle and battery plants, seeking to take advantage of federal government subsidies and establish a strong position in the transition. Unemployment is low, giving workers more confidence, while inflation has eroded paychecks.

The union says that thousands of workers at nonunion automakers are reaching out, inspired by the wins at the Big Three. Leaders hope the UAW can use this momentum to get over the hurdles that have prevented it for decades from organizing a single assembly plant not owned by the Big Three.

Auto workers are also taking note of the uptick in labor organizing across the country. “They see what’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon,” Cochran said in a press release. “They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay, and a better life.”

Billy Quigg, a production team member in assembly at the Chattanooga plant, was also involved in the minority union. Among his top reasons for backing the union push are forced overtime on Saturdays and a lack of time off. He was one of seven hundred Volkswagen workers who signed a June 2022 petition demanding the company “do better on quality of life issues related to our schedules.”

Pretending To Catch Up

In the wake of the strike at the Big Three, VW announced November 22 that it would raise wages by 11 percent.

Starting pay at Volkswagen is now $23.42 after the increase, with top pay rising to $32.40. The company said it would shorten the progression to top pay from seven years to four (the UAW’s progression at the Big Three is now three years). Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Subaru, Nissan, and Volvo have also hiked wages. Toyota went a step further, shortening its progressions to top pay.

President Shawn Fain called it the “UAW bump,” and quipped that the union’s initials stood for “U. Are. Welcome.”

“It’s autoworkers everywhere against corporate greed,” he said in October, responding Ford executive chair Bill Ford’s call for Big Three autoworkers to unite with management to compete against the nonunion auto plants. “Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy — they’re the UAW members of the future.”

VW has also made concessions to workers to blunt earlier drives. In 2019, it started cooling the plant earlier in the week, changed the wardrobe policy to allow shorts, adjusted the shift schedule from five eight-hour days to four ten-hour days, and booted out abusive managers.

First of Three Steps

Volkswagen workers have met the first of three milestones in the UAW’s organizing plan: 30 percent have signed union cards. Once they reach 50 percent, union leaders, community allies, and family members will rally with the workers in public displays of the committee’s strength and community support.

At the 70 percent mark, and after having built up their organizing committee to include workers from every shift and job classification, workers will present the company with a choice: voluntarily recognize the union, or workers will file for a union authorization election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Times have changed and our time is now,” the UAW’s new video tells workers, announcing the union drive. “The question isn’t, ‘Why do GM workers in Spring Hill or Ford workers in Louisville get a better life?’ The question is, ‘Why don’t we?’”