Chattanooga VW Worker: “This Will Change What People Think Is Possible”

Zach Costello

Fresh off of the United Auto Workers’ blowout unionization victory at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant, we spoke to a VW worker there about why the drive won and where the UAW goes from here.

Chattanooga VW workers celebrate after a successful union vote with the UAW, April 19. (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

On Friday night, workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, unionized. The victory was decisive: 2,628 to 985, meaning 73 percent of ballots were in favor of unionizing with the UAW. Of 4,300 eligible voters, 83.5 percent cast ballots, a remarkably high turnout. These workers really wanted a union.

The win makes VW the only unionized foreign-owned auto plant in the South. While the UAW represents several Big Three shops in the region — Ford and GM have plants in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas — the VW shop is the first Southern auto plant to unionize through a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election since the 1940s. That’s momentous: the UAW has committed $40 million in additional funds to organize nonunion and electric vehicle (EV) workers, and with this win, that campaign will accelerate. No longer can anyone say that it can’t be done.

The Chattanooga plant was the site of several failed UAW organizing drives over the past decade. In 2014, the vote was 712 against, 626 in favor, a loss that followed from an anti-union effort that saw the state’s governor personally lead a captive-audience meeting discouraging workers from unionizing. In 2019, the vote was even closer, with 833 no votes to 776 yes votes. Now, at long last, workers have decisively won the fight.

Riding on the momentum of a reform effort in the UAW that led to the ascent of new leadership who are willing to fight, rather than collaborate with, employers, and the historic Big Three strike last fall that won major raises for union members, the UAW is on a roll. They’ve vowed to organize 150,000 nonunion autoworkers, and with the victory at Volkswagen, they have proof that it can be done.

Some six thousand workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, will vote in an NLRB election from May 13 to 17, and the four thousand Hyundai workers at a plant in Montgomery, Alabama, are expected to file for an NLRB election imminently. The UAW is at last storming the South’s anti-union citadel, and while six Southern governors have united in a desperate attempt to try to stop them, the win at VW suggests that such fear-mongering may not be able to stop Southern workers.

Zach Costello, thirty-four, has worked at the VW plant since 2017. He supported the union in 2019 but says that the campaign’s momentum was incomparable this time around. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Costello at the Labor Notes conference near Chicago about the earth-shattering victory, the working conditions at the plant, and what comes next for Southern autoworkers.

Alex N. Press

Where’d you grow up? Did you have any ties to the labor movement before you started at VW?

Zach Costello

My dad used to be union, though I only found that out when I told him that we were trying to unionize our shop. I grew up in Florida: Jacksonville, born and raised, and I moved here in late 2016. I grew up in fast food. I worked at KFC, Taco Bell, and then Moe’s from 2013 to 2016. I have ADHD, and it makes certain activities very frustrating and taxing on the mind. When you’re trying to do fast-food orders, you’re the picker, and the order taker, things are so chaotic. Trying to juggle all those tasks was something that I did not jive well with. I have very sensitive hands, so when I worked at a restaurant, I’d have constant breakouts on my hands. But at Moe’s, they had a diverse group of people in what they called the “super crew,” and it made Moe’s a defining place for me because one of them helped me stop believing in anti-social-justice-warrior crap.

I was watching a YouTuber who I didn’t quite realize is super right wing, and they’d rail against feminism. So I talked to a feminist who worked in the crew, and it was awesome; they helped explain a lot of things to me. Don’t ever let people tell you that those people are not inclusive, because they absolutely are. Personally, I call myself a socialist now.

That job also made me realize that people need more say at the workplace, and that this idea that we should just do what we’re told and that unskilled labor is something that you shouldn’t make much money doing. I’d think: I work harder than a lot of the businessmen who own this place. They make all the money, and they make all the decisions, and all the decisions suck, because my job gets harder and more painful when they make a decision. Every day is filled with more frustration whenever a corporate guy comes in. The amount of misery that goes into a busy day and yet I don’t make a penny more when I make you guys more money. How does that make sense? That’s when I first started having the wheels turn and realizing that this is a raw deal.

Alex N. Press

Why did you move to Chattanooga?

Zach Costello

I had a bad roommate situation, and then I’d broken my collarbone on my way to work — it happened right after I turned twenty-six and was kicked off my dad’s health insurance. So I had medical debt and then bills piling up because of the housing situation, so I had to move back in with my mother. She’d moved up to Chattanooga.

Somebody let me know that there was a hiring fair at Volkswagen. I remember thinking that they weren’t going to take me, because I tried to get out of food many times and couldn’t. But they did, so I started in June 2017. They just needed people, and you’re worth a lot more than you think as a worker. If you show up every day and give it your all, that’s important.

For five years, I worked on the line. The main portion of my first job was to torque seat-belt bolts. That’s where I hurt my back. In the last hour of overtime — it was the last car — I felt a pop in my waist. I’ve never felt the same since.

It’s pathetic to say that I’m one of the lucky ones, but I am, because other people have had to have surgery. And then they rotated me to a different job putting in headliners, and I was still in pain every single day. I’d be limping out of there. Now I’m a trainer, working day shifts from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Alex N. Press

Are injuries and safety concerns a big problem at the plant?

Zach Costello

Absolutely. The line is a meat grinder. I recently had to fill in a job on the line, and it was insane. I thought it was bad when I left the line, but this is absolutely psychotic. There are one too many tasks in each of these jobs. I cannot believe what they’re making people do out here. People are getting injured, tired, sweaty, and angry. It’s not safe to have people trying to work that fast.

I have an unprecedented number of people going out for back and shoulder surgery. It’s bad news. These are people I train who are excited to work there, and then I check on them a month later and they’ve got the thousand-yard stare and need surgery.

Chattanooga VW worker Zach Costello at the Labor Notes conference near Chicago, Illinois.

We have lost activity from voluntary organizing committee members (VOCs) because of that, because they got bodied at work. The line that I helped organize, they made sure that we were all locked down with how many people were for the union, but some of those people fell away. I don’t blame them. One guy showed up to every single meeting, but then he had to have back surgery, and he looked tired every time I saw him. He was always in good spirits until he got that injury — and then he had to fight because the company would not give him workers’ comp. They kept saying it was not work-related, and they made him go back to work still injured. They started threatening to fire him, which they can’t, but the fact that he’s still having to fight HR tooth and nail has led him to decide to quit.

He helped us organize but doesn’t want to work here anymore. That’s such a shame. It sickens me to even talk about it.

Alex N. Press

The win was overwhelming. It’s a historic, momentous victory. It seems like the VOC was key to that outcome, pushing turnout to an unbelievably high 83.5 percent of eligible voters. Why do you think the result was so decisive?

Zach Costello

The anti-union campaign helped us with the voter turnout. I encouraged everyone to vote, regardless of whether they supported the union. I wanted to win with everybody’s voice being heard.

We definitely didn’t have the plant covered 100 percent, but we had it pretty good. One thing we had to do was lower the bar on who we considered a supporter. We were having great meeting turnout, but after the plant shut down around Christmas, meeting attendance dipped. At one point, I was in a meeting that only had six people. I thought we’d blown it. But we built it back up day by day. And the company helped us: one anti-union guy who had been throwing away our fliers flipped because the company did him dirty. Another anti-union guy who I think just didn’t end up voting was so angry with the company because he withstood an injury and kept getting screwed over. They did so many people dirty before the vote.

Alex N. Press

We’re at the Labor Notes conference, and Labor Notes began nearly fifty years ago in part with autoworkers who wanted to reform the UAW. Back then, the reform effort was called New Directions. Now there is Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a reform caucus. International president Shawn Fain is a member.

How would you describe the importance of union reformers, both rank-and-file reform efforts as well as the approach of the new leadership the rank and file put into office last year?

Zach Costello

A lot of the stuff we’ve seen today would not exist without reform: increased democracy and progressive people taking over, people who want to fight rather than try to get along with the people at the top of these companies trying to take from us. Reformers are saying, “Screw that.”

Shawn Fain said, “We’re going to wreck their economy.” I love that energy. It is about saying, “I don’t give a damn about their profit margin, because every penny of that profit margin is ill-gotten gains.” People need to understand that. One of the biggest problems with the prior VW campaign was the lack of that energy. People thought there wasn’t a point, that nothing happens when you join a union. It was hard to argue with at the time.

Alex N. Press

So you think the change in the UAW — direct elections for leadership sweeping in new leaders like Shawn, the empowerment of rank-and-file members that is starting to be felt within the union — were a big factor in building support among your coworkers?

Zach Costello

Yes, you didn’t have to distance yourself from the union in any argument. I’d always say, “This isn’t the 2019 UAW.”

Shawn came for a surprise visit to help us deliver a letter to the company telling them to stop union busting, and it was awesome. When he was there, he talked about how Mexicans are just people trying to find a better life and take care of their families. I remember thinking some of my coworkers needed to hear that. It has been pleasantly surprising to see who supports the union: you might expect people to be one way, and the “culture war” crap has really polarized people. But where the rubber meets the road, and they can see how it affects them, they see clearly.

And it’s important for people to know that those who support us also don’t want to treat human beings from a country south of us like they’re lesser and they deserve less than us. Shawn also talked about how terrible what is happening in Palestine is at that meeting.

One of the things that spurred us to send that letter to the company was that we were told not to distribute material at Gate Three of the plant. It was the first flyering at the gate that we did, and security came out and told us we could not distribute there. It was open union busting in front of multiple witnesses. We even offered to do it farther away from the gate, across the bridge, and they said that they’d still have to clear us out. That’s why Shawn came down.

Alex N. Press

Your victory has ramifications well beyond your shop, and everyone is speculating about what will happen next. As someone in the thick of it, what do you see following this win?

Zach Costello

I hope that it’s a domino effect. We hope that every time someone busts through the wall and unionizes, it makes it easier for the next people to do it too. That’s what this country needs right now. I don’t have any illusions, I don’t think we’ll win them all, but we’re at a place in this country where we can’t afford to lose, and I’m hopeful that we’ll get more. I hope that this will change what people think is possible and what can be normal. We can do better.

So many people have suffered in this country, and we need every one of these places unionized. People ask how we can maintain competitiveness in the market. Why have we been pitted against each other as workers? We have people fighting each other, when what we need is solidarity across companies. Workers need to be together when shit hits the fan, because if we aren’t, these companies will bicker and fight, and it’s our lives in the balance.

Alex N. Press

A lot of people talk about the need to organize the South, but the labor movement has largely failed to do that for a very long time, going back to the CIO’s Operation Dixie in the 1940s. Having just successfully done it, what would you say about organizing in the South?

Zach Costello

We’re finally starting to chip away at a facade that the people in power built. They say that we can’t do it? Well, we showed you: 73 percent victory. I’m hoping that we see a new age where we start breaking up this dynamic that goes all the way to slavery, a track record of exploitation in the South.

It happens elsewhere too, but some people pride themselves on it here. We shouldn’t take pride in busting our asses to get exploited by somebody else. There’s a way of thinking in the South that tells people to shut up and stop bitching. My hope is that we might see an end to that way of thinking.