Dec 7, 2023 - Economy

Exclusive: UAW taking a third stab at organizing Volkswagen U.S. plant

Autoworkers at the only Volkswagen plant in the U.S. have launched a voluntary organizing committee in coordination with the UAW — the first step toward officially joining the union, workers exclusively tell Axios.

Why it matters: The UAW recently launched a bid to organize 13 non-unionized automakers in the U.S., aiming to build on its momentum after winning record contracts following a strike at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

Driving the news: As it ramps up its national organizing campaign, the UAW is returning to VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee — the scene where it suffered a pair of devastating losses in the 2010s.

  • The UAW said more than 1,000 workers — which it described as more than 30% of the plant — have already signed union authorization cards. The factory had 3,800 workers as of 2020, the last time VW provided updated data.
  • "We're making positive progress, and most of the people I speak to, if they're not in board, they're very interested in learning more," says Josh Epperson, a member of the committee who's worked at the plant since 2012.

State of play: The UAW long viewed the VW plant as its best shot at organizing a non-unionized automaker, in part because the company's factories in its home base of Germany are unionized.

  • But the Chattanooga factory's workers rejected unionization in 2014 and 2019 by a slim majority each time.
  • VW was officially neutral in those elections, although it told workers in a letter that "we believe we can achieve more for us all" by keeping an open dialogue. Local Republicans fiercely opposed the UAW.

The big question: Is this time different?

  • Isaac Meadows — a member of the voluntary organizing committee who works on the assembly line at the plant — says most of the employees who previously voted down unionization are gone, replaced by a younger cohort that's more likely to embrace it.
  • Meadows says they're also prepared to deploy a more comprehensive digital communication campaign this time around.
  • "There's a lot more excitement and interest in this than meets the eye," Meadows says.

The other side: Volkswagen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

  • The VW plant in Chattanooga manufactures several vehicles that are critical to the company's success in the U.S., including the Atlas SUV and the company's ID.4 EV.

Worth noting: VW gave its U.S. factory workers an 11% raise after the UAW's recent settlements with GM, Ford and Stellantis — deals that resulted in 25% boosts plus additional benefits for UAW-represented workers.

  • Other foreign automakers also gave raises to their U.S. workers — including Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai — leading UAW president Shawn Fain to label those increases the "UAW bump" for "u are welcome."
  • The UAW's campaign against the Detroit Three was "galvanizing" to the efforts in Chattanooga, Epperson says.

Yes, but: The UAW's past failures to organize plants in the South illustrate the uphill climb in a generally conservative region that's historically been hostile to unions.

  • "It's tough down here in the South, but we're trying to build up excitement for it," Meadows says, noting that the plant's workforce has become increasingly diverse in recent years.
  • Meadows says it's helpful to local organizing efforts that the UAW has not endorsed President Biden for reelection.
  • "This is not about partisan politics — this is about you and me, here and now, working to make things better," Epperson says is his message to fellow employees.

The bottom line: The UAW is hoping to seal the deal in a place where it was close before its recent momentum.

Go deeper: UAW promises to deliver where it's failed before: the South

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