After the UAW’s stand-up strike against the Big 3, the union pledged to embark on an aggressive campaign to organize nonunion automakers. Today, the UAW announced it is filing an election at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant.

Autoworkers in Tennessee are voting on whether to unionize their plant. (Michael P. Farrell / Albany Times Union via Getty Images)

Autoworkers will vote on whether to form a union at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the company’s only factory on the planet without a union.

On Monday, the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed for an election to represent all four thousand of the plant’s hourly employees, after the union said a “supermajority” of workers signed union cards in one hundred days. Unlike in the last three failed drives at this plant, this time, the UAW has publicly laid out its strategy to support worker-led organizing across the nonunion auto and battery plant sector at companies like Toyota, Rivian, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Volkswagen.

The strategy is for workers to announce their organizing drives once they have reached 30 percent on signed union authorization cards, hold rallies with community and labor supporters at the 50 percent mark, and demand voluntary recognition when they reach 70 percent, having grown their organizing committee to include workers from every shift and job classification. If the company refuses, the workers file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

Volkswagen is the first nonunion plant to clear that milestone. More than ten thousand workers at thirteen nonunion carmakers and two dozen facilities nationwide have signed union cards since last November, when the UAW announced an ambitious goal to organize one hundred fifty thousand autoworkers.

That’s roughly the same number of workers covered under the Big 3 contracts at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. The union captivated the labor movement last fall with a Big 3 strike that won members landmark contracts.

The UAW was circumspect about confirming whether 70 percent of workers in the Chattanooga plant had indeed signed union cards. But the union’s strategy indicates that workers have built enough energy and momentum to file for an election.

Why I’m Voting Yes

In a new video released by the union, Volkswagen workers explain why they’re voting yes: to improve working conditions, to gain representation in management meetings, to fix broken equipment, and to win adequate health care and a better personal leave policy.

“We don’t have much in the way of paid time off,” Isaac Meadows, a production team member in assembly, told me. “Money comes secondary in all our conversations.”

Workers at Volkswagen have no sick time, and annual plant closures eat into their time-off bank. Meadows has ninety-six hours of paid time off. “When we have our scheduled shutdowns in the winter and in the summer, the company takes most of it,” he said. “And then when we do come back to work, we’re required to work a lot of Saturdays.”

Workers want to take back their weekends, or at least receive more notice if they are scheduled to work on the weekend on top of earning time and half. They currently are notified of weekend work on Thursday and earn time and half only if they’ve worked over forty hours during the week.

Zach Costello, a trainer at the plant, said the last union drive in 2019, which the union lost narrowly by fifty-seven votes, outmaneuvered by political and company opposition, was marred because the UAW needed to clean house.

At the time, a Justice Department investigation revealed long-standing corruption in the union, including embezzlement, kickbacks, and collusion with employers. Thirteen union officials went to jail, including two former presidents, after pleading guilty to embezzlement and racketeering charges.

“When you don’t see something good coming from unions, you assume that they have no purpose, because it seems like an extra step that you don’t need,” he said.

With reformers at the helm, the UAW no longer carries the patina of a union mired in corruption and complacency, as do-nothing leaders in the pocket of management settled one subpar contract after another.

Back in 2019, my coworkers “couldn’t point to a time in their lives where they were watching the news and saw, ‘Oh, my God, look what they did,” said Costello in reference to gains of the Big 3 stand-up strike. “That’s amazing. We can do that.”

Breaching Anti-Union Strongholds

The UAW has faced repeated defeats at Volkswagen and other automakers. But while the companies succeeded in routing their workers in forming a union, the defeats were never complete. A nucleus of workplace organizers, a group that refused to accept the bosses’ tyrannical power over them, remained. When the Big 3 autoworkers bested the auto companies in their strike last year and notched landmark contracts, they were ready to stand up and renew their organizing push.

Yolanda Peoples, a third-generation autoworker on the engine assembly line, is one of those worker-leaders who was hired in 2011, when the plant opened, attracting eighty-five thousand applications for two thousand jobs. People said the organizing committee got to 50 percent a lot sooner than in previous drives thanks to the use of electronic cards. While all three shifts are covered by the organizing committee, they are also vocal in their support of the union drive.

In previous drives, “the people that were pushing for the UAW, it was like we were part of a secret society,” she remembered. “We had to be real hush-hush about it because we didn’t want to get in any trouble with HR because we said the word ‘union.’ So it was real hard for us to get the word around to our coworkers.” As they again have entered the organizing arena, worker-leaders have learned from these past defeats.

Diverse Workforce

But the terrain of struggle inside the plant has also changed over the years. That change includes the backgrounds of the plant’s workforce and a broadly representative organizing committee.

In 2014, nine out of ten workers at the plant were white and the majority of them men. Chattanooga’s population is 184,000, with 59 percent of residents white and 29 percent black, according to the latest census estimates. Racist dog whistles were effective at dividing the workforce. The conservative front group Americans for Tax Reform rented billboards around Chattanooga emblazoned with the message: “UNITED AUTO OBAMA WORKERS.”

That divide-and-conquer tactic is less effective now, especially among former union members. Meadows was a union worker in Reno, Nevada. Coming from a union stronghold, he said the biggest obstacle for the campaign was overcoming the South’s deep-seated skepticism and hostility to unions, especially among younger workers who learn anti-unionism from family members. The UAW has been in the crosshairs of the state’s Republican politicians and outside lobbyists from Washington, DC.

But Meadows said that among his Nigerian, Vietnamese, Colombian, and Ukrainian coworkers, there are different sentiments toward unions. “I think because of our great diversity, it’s diluted some of that Southern political mentality. And so it’s making the conversation easier.”

Meadows said Volkswagen prides itself on being a globally progressive company. That has had some impact on its workforce, recently celebrating the contributions of African Americans during Black History Month. The question is whether, should workers win their election, the company will translate those lofty progressive values into bargaining a contract to recognize the contributions of Meadows, Peoples, Costello, and thousands of their coworkers in making it a successful company.

“We take pride in the work we do,” said Victor Vaughn, an assembly worker on the logistics line last month. “We want to be recognized for what we do, not be taken advantage of.”

Today, in a union press release, he said: “We are voting yes for our union because we want Volkswagen to be successful.” But he says that success shouldn’t come at the cost of bodily injury.

“Just the other day, I was almost hit by four five-hundred-plus-pound crates while I was driving to deliver parts,” said Vaughn. “That incident should’ve been followed up within the hour, but even after I clocked out no one asked me about it. Volkswagen 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.”

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