UAW Eyes Tennessee Volkswagen Plant for Unionization

United Auto Workers announced on Dec. 7 that more than 30 percent of workers at Volkswagen Chattanooga have signaled support for unionization.
UAW Eyes Tennessee Volkswagen Plant for Unionization
Workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Aug. 31, 2017. (Erik Schelzig/AP Photo)
Chase Smith

Workers at the only Volkswagen plant in the United States have started a new campaign to unionize, the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union announced on Dec. 7.

More than 1,000 workers have signed union authorization cards, representing more than 30 percent of the plant’s total workforce. The plant is the largest employer in Chattanooga, Tennessee’s fourth largest city, with about 5,500 employees.

They help build the Atlas, Atlas Sport, and most recently the electric ID.4.

In November, the company announced an 11 percent pay raise for production workers at the Chattanooga assembly plant, increasing starting hourly wages to $23.42 and introducing a compressed wage progression timeline beginning next year, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.

Despite those efforts by the company to remain an attractive option in the blue-collar workforce, the announcement from the southern auto plant comes as the UAW started a national effort to target all nonunionized autoworkers at 13 companies.

“Volkswagen workers have taken the first big step to form our union,” the UAW website reads. “In the last three years, we’ve seen VW make nearly a trillion dollars in revenue and $78 billion in profit, but we haven’t seen our fair share in Chattanooga. Now we’re ready to fight for a better job, a better life and a better future.”

In a statement on Dec. 7, Volkswagen said the company is proud of the work environment it has created in Chattanooga.

“Our attractive compensation program—including a recent pay increase of 11%—and our comprehensive benefits and development opportunities reflect our constant commitment to our team members,” the company said in a statement. “We believe in frequent, transparent, and two-way dialogue with our people to help them stay informed and connected and help shape our world-class assembly environment. We also respect the right of our workers to determine who should represent their interests in the workplace.”

Past Attempts Failed

Two previous attempts to unionize at the Chattanooga plant were unsuccessful but not by a large margin. The latest attempt in 2019 saw 51.8 percent against unionization, and the 2014 election saw 53.2 percent against the union, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Steve Cochran, a leader in the Volkswagen union drive, commented on the enthusiasm among the workforce today.

“People are standing up like never before,” he said in a statement released by UAW. “There are a lot of young workers in the plant now, and this generation wants respect. They’re not okay with mistreatment by management. They see what’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon. They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay, and a better life.”

Amazon also has a large footprint in Chattanooga, but workers there have so far been discouraged from any major organizing efforts after the failed UAW votes in the 2010s from their VW neighbors and the failed unionization vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, plant in 2022.

In its statement on Dec. 7, VW pointed to the large investment it has made in the city of Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee.

“Since 2008, we have invested more than $4.3 billion in our Chattanooga assembly plant, which has led to more than 125,000 direct and indirect jobs for hard-working Americans,” the statement reads. “We are proud to be a part of the automotive growth and innovation happening in the American South. In the past two years, we added more than 1,200 additional production jobs and an additional shift to assemble the all-electric ID.4 SUV. Our supplier partners have invested a further $2.7 billion for the localized ID.4, creating thousands more direct jobs.”

What Organizers Are Saying

The move comes in the wake of what the UAW says are record profits for VW, amounting to $184 billion over the past decade. Despite the increase in VW vehicle prices by 37 percent in three years, workers’ wages haven’t kept pace, especially when compared with wages of their counterparts in the Big Three automakers, UAW claims.
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/ Erik Schelzig, file)
Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/ Erik Schelzig, file)

Vicky Holloway, a production team member in body shop quality at VW Chattanooga, expressed concerns about job allocation and safety in the UAW statement.

“When I’m looking at a weld, I think about my grandkids in the backseat of that car,” she said. “I want to know we’re doing the job right. But the company isn’t putting people into jobs because they have the experience or the qualifications. They’re just handpicking whoever they want. We need the union so people with the right experience are put into the right positions. Safety has to come first.”

Billy Quigg, another production team member, echoed the sentiments about working conditions: “I like working at VW, I’m proud to make these vehicles, but I’m not proud of the way we’re treated. The forced overtime on Saturdays, the lack of time off, it keeps us away from our families.

“That’s why we’re building the union. When people have a good job and time to spend with our families, we’ll help the whole community thrive.”

The growing discontent and unionization efforts follow the UAW’s successful Stand Up Strike at the Big Three, which saw about 50,000 workers strike for more than 40 days, leading to significant wins for the UAW.

Josh Epperson, an equipment operator in assembly, also highlighted issues of turnover at VW Chattanooga.

“I have trained new people on the line, and most of them are gone in a few months,” Mr. Epperson said in the statement. “They don’t have the tools and the support they need to thrive. With the union, we can improve working conditions. If there’s an issue in our work area, we’ll have a way to address it. We’ll find common ground so we can make it a good job and people will want to stay.”

Drew Hall, another production team member, told a personal anecdote.

“I come from a union family, I know the difference the union makes,“ he said. ”My father grew up here, then moved to Michigan and got a job with Ford. He had to retire early with a disability and the union made sure he got his full pension and retiree health care. He moved back to Chattanooga and lived a good life for 25 more years. The union made that possible. It’s a better way of life.”

Chase is an award-winning journalist. He covers Tennessee and other parts of the Southeast for The Epoch Times. For news tips, send Chase an email at [email protected].