Determined to organize the South, UAW again aims for Volkswagen, Chattanooga
UAW workers are trying for a third time to make a major breakthrough in the South by organizing at Volkswagen. | YouTube screenshot

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.–Will the third time be the charm for the United Auto Workers in their long drive to unionize the 4,100 workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.? The union’s new leaders believe so, and it’s a centerpiece of their campaign to organize the non-union auto companies in the South.

UAW, which has committed $40 million to that goal over the next two years, announced on March 18 that a supermajority of Chattanooga workers had signed union election authorization cards UAW sent to the National Labor Relations Board. That’s only 100 days after the campaign went public.

The union’s ultimate goal is to win over the estimated 150,000 autoworkers in the union-averse South, most of them in union-hating states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Alabama and especially South Carolina.

Key issues in Chattanooga are wages, working conditions and respect on the job.

“I want a union so we can have a voice in our working conditions. Right now, we have a say in anything,” one worker says in a new video on the campaign’s website.

Adds an African-American woman: “I’ve been on the other side of the table against management. It felt like it was five against one. I feel like I’m being ganged up against.”

Tried twice before

UAW has tried twice before to unionize VW in Chattanooga. It narrowly lost the most high-profile vote. In keeping with European labor law, VW upper management in Germany once again has piously proclaimed it is officially neutral in the union’s organizing drive.

But in that balloting, VW’s American managers were unfettered by European legal strictures which are inoperative on this side of the pond.

They brought in union-busting Republican politicians–the governor, key members of the heavily gerrymandered legislature and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker—-to denigrate the UAW and, more importantly, to threaten to yank state tax breaks and subsidies for a planned expansion of the plant if the workers went union. They backed that threat with an expensive anti-union ad campaign. The threats worked.

The track record doesn’t faze the UAW, especially under new President Shawn Fain and the new board, all of whom won their seats in the union’s first-ever popular-vote election. One big issue they have going for the union: The resounding success of its Stand Up rolling strikes against the Detroit automakers last year.

The UAW recouped almost all of its losses its members suffered at the Detroit 0 over the prior two decades, receiving huge wage hikes, restoration of cost-of-living increases, increases in pension payments for retirees, and abolition of the hated two-tier pay system. They also won a faster progression to top-of-scale pay.

“Today, we are one step closer to making a good job at Volkswagen into a great career,” Isaac Meadows, an assembly line worker, told UAW. “Right now, we miss time with our families because so much of our paid-time-off is burned up during the summer and winter shutdowns.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between our family and our job. By winning our union and a real voice at Volkswagen, we can negotiate for more time with our families.”

“We are voting yes for our union because we want Volkswagen to be successful,” logistics team worker Victor Vaughn explained. “Volkswagen has spent billions of dollars expanding in Chattanooga, but right now safety is a major issue in our plant. Just the other day, I was almost hit by four 500-plus pound crates while I was driving to deliver parts.

“That incident should’ve been followed up within the hour, but even after I clocked out no one asked me about it. VW has partnered with unionized workforces around the world to make their plants safe and successful. That’s why we’re voting for a voice at Volkswagen here in Chattanooga.”

Chattanooga is VW’s only U.S. factory, and its only non-union factory worldwide.

“When we win our union, we’ll be able to bargain for a safer workplace, so people can stay on the job and the company can benefit from our experience,” production worker Yolanda Peoples told UAW. “When my father retired as a UAW member, he had something to fall back on. VW workers deserve the same.”

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.