The UAW’s New Push to Organize Nonunion Auto Is Bearing Fruit

The UAW announced yesterday that 10,000 autoworkers have signed union cards since it launched its drive to organize the nonunion auto workforce two months ago. It’s a high-risk campaign — and precisely the type of gambit the working class needs right now.

UAW members and others gather for a rally on September 4, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

The United Auto Workers (UAW) keeps rolling on.

On Monday, the union announced that a combined ten thousand nonunion workers at two dozen plants across the United States have signed UAW cards since the union began its campaign to organize a sizable portion of the country’s nonunion auto sector, especially thirteen automakers: BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen (VW), and Volvo, and electric vehicle (EV) producers Lucid, Rivian, and Tesla. The UAW estimates that the total workforce it’s targeting is around 150,000 people, roughly the same number as are covered by the union’s contracts with the “Big Three” Detroit automakers.

So ten thousand cards means the union has a long way to go. But coming less than ninety days after UAW members ratified the Big Three contracts following their hard-fought stand-up strike, it’s an encouraging milestone. Call it evidence that the union wasn’t bluffing when it said it was channeling resources into an effort to reverse the union’s decades-long decline, along with that of much of the rest of the labor movement.

“Our Stand-Up movement has caught fire among America’s autoworkers, far beyond the Big Three,” UAW president Shawn Fain said in a statement on the announcement. “These workers are standing up for themselves, for their families, and for their communities, and our union will have their back every step of the way.”

“I’m Still Living Paycheck to Paycheck”

Two plant-specific campaigns have reached the 30 percent benchmark that the union has set for properly going public: those at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, shop and Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. According to the union, a near-majority of workers have signed union authorization cards at both factories, which employ 5,500 and 5,000, respectively. Workers at the Mercedes-Benz shop make the Mercedes GLE, GLE coupé, and GLS model series as well as the all-electric EQS SUV and EQE. Those at the VW plant build the VW Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport, and the electric ID.4. Other prime targets with campaigns underway include Toyota’s 9,500-person Georgetown, Kentucky, shop and Tesla’s 20,000-person Fremont, California, operation.

“The pay isn’t keeping up and the benefits aren’t what they should be,” one VW worker said in a video announcing the Chattanooga push. “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?’”

“I feel like we’re living to work when we should be working to live,” said Moesha Chandler, a recent hire at Mercedes-Benz. “I started as a temp making $17.50 an hour. I’m full time now, but I’m still living paycheck to paycheck.”

At Mercedes-Benz, workers are also fed up with tiers, the scourge of so many workers across the country, and they work six days in a row, ten hours a day. Chattanooga’s workers have similar quality-of-life issues, citing forced overtime and a lack of time off (issues about which Fain seems particularly concerned) in addition to a host of other grievances about pay and benefits.

According to the UAW, Mercedes-Benz made $156 billion in total profits over the last decade, and in the last three years, their profits grew 200 percent. The union says the Volkswagen Group has raked in $184 billion in profits over the last decade, and that VW vehicle prices are up 37 percent in the past three years while wages lag behind.

The VW plant has been the site of several unsuccessful UAW campaigns. Pro-union workers were short eighty-six votes in 2014 and fifty-seven votes in 2019, with the latter tally distinguished by a remarkably high 93 percent turnout. (In 2015, a group of workers at the plant voted to join UAW Local 42, the minority union that formed after the 2014 loss, but VW stalled, appealing the vote, and the union eventually gave up on the push.) According to Labor Notes’ Luis Feliz Leon, the VW workers didn’t simply wind up their effort after the 2019 loss, but rather, continued “meeting regularly and running a petition for the right to use their paid time off outside the company’s annual weeklong maintenance shutdown.”

But that was before members elected new leadership, distancing themselves from the old guard’s past corruption. And it was before the UAW won big at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis.

The New Strategy

The union’s strategy this time around is a departure from the typical organizing playbook, where secrecy is prioritized to evade alerting the boss to the campaign, with public announcements put off for as long as possible. In this push, the UAW will go public with a campaign once 30 percent of workers have signed cards, then hold a rally with union leadership (Fain included) as well as families, neighbors, and community leaders as a means to build momentum for the effort. At 70 percent — and with an organizing committee in place containing members from each shift and job classification — workers will seek voluntary recognition for their union. Should the company refuse, the UAW will file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.

To pull off the new strategy, the union must empower workers inside the plants to take the lead on organizing. As Jeremy Kimbrell, a Mercedes-Benz worker, explained in Labor Notes, the workers are worrying less about building a formal organizing committee (he says they’ve put together a “revolving-door committee”) and more about spreading the word quickly. That means finding “the talkers” — specifically, the ones who are widely respected by their coworkers — and those with the greatest mobility inside the plant.

When Labor Notes published Kimbrell’s piece two weeks ago (later reprinted at Jacobin), fifteen hundred of his coworkers had signed union cards in the previous seven weeks. (As Kimbrell points out, when they tried to organize in 2013, it took six months to get 30 percent of their plant’s then twenty-two hundred workers to sign cards.) VW workers hit the 30 percent benchmark nearly two months ago.

In a union drive, the first set of cards tends to come quickly, as a shop’s stalwart pro-union workers sign cards immediately and bring along those closest to them. It’s the next set of workers, the big undecided middle of the workforce, who can make or break a campaign. If organizers can reach them, they can build a supermajority. If they cannot, or the boss is tipped off and instigates an effective anti-union campaign that spreads fear, confusion, or anger, you’re in trouble. At VW, workers have filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB alleging that the company is illegally intimidating, interfering with, and spying on pro-union workers, as well as enforcing unlawful policies concerning social media, dress code, and flyering.

In the wake of the Big Three wins, nonunion employers hoping to quash any nascent organizing drives have also offered a carrot rather than a stick. VW raised pay by 11 percent and shortened the progression schedule to reach that wage: the new starting minimum is $23.42, with top pay jumping to $32.40, a progression that now takes four rather than seven years (at the Big Three automakers, workers reach top pay in three years). Many other companies have likewise implemented raises, gains the union has taken to calling the “UAW bump.” Fain is fond of joking that UAW stands for “U Are Welcome.”

But in much of the South, the employer isn’t the only problem: it’s the outside campaign, the elected officials and other elements hostile to the working class, who are sure to mobilize. There’s no doubt some of that is now underway: shortly after Mercedes-Benz workers went public, Alabama governor Kay Ivey penned an op-ed vowing to resist the effort.

The next few months are critical. But everyone leading this push knew that going in, and if workers are adequately prepared to withstand the propaganda, trust each other, and are willing to fight, they have more than a decent shot.

A Worthy Risk

If the UAW’s new approach is built on momentum, the union undoubtedly has it right now: the labor market remains tight, public sentiment is favorable, and Fain seemingly goes viral every time he’s on camera, his mix of Debsian fellow feeling for the working class and righteous outrage at the employer class resonating with many workers, union and nonunion, in the United States and around the world.

The UAW’s list of automaker targets is broad. Each plant has its own challenges: Tesla’s gigantic 20,000-person shop in Fremont, California, presents myriad obstacles, and there’s no question that the anti-union “right-to-work” South operates as a jealously guarded fortress for the capitalist class and their lackeys in the courts and in state and local government — who will be, as Governor Ivey is, dead set on preventing a UAW local from popping up in their jurisdiction. They rely on exploiting a captive workforce, and they won’t give up that arrangement easily.

The UAW’s past efforts to organize auto plants in the South failed to bear fruit, and for some workers, the failures aren’t yet a distant memory. But few workplaces in this country are “easy” to organize, and the union’s approach suggests that they have learned from those defeats. Indeed, upon taking over the international presidency, Fain quickly hired some of the union’s fiercest critics to help the UAW forge a new path. Now, as in the Big Three negotiations, the union is trying something new.

The gambit may fail, but the labor movement must be more willing to risk that if it ever hopes to succeed. The collapse in worker power continues to this very day. In the UAW, membership peaked at 1.5 million 1979; in 2023, it was down to 383,000 (along with some 600,000 retirees). We cannot stop such a free fall without taking big swings. There is no denying the UAW is doing precisely that with this campaign.