'This feels totally different': For 3rd time, VW workers mull joining UAW

Kalea Hall, The Detroit News on

Published in Business News

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — Some are betting they will make history this week as Volkswagen AG workers vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers in this southern auto-producing state, where a right-to-work law is ingrained in its constitution.

Those pushing for unionization at the sprawling plant surrounded by the mountains of East Tennessee speak proudly of their effort, expressing certainty they will win when voting concludes Friday; those against express worry that such a revolution could lead to fewer jobs in an area branding itself as the "Motor City. The new one."

The vote carries enormous implications for VW, roughly 4,300 hourly employees at the plant and the Detroit-based union: it is seeking to organize foreign-owned auto factories across the South after decades of failed attempts, including election defeats by VW workers in 2014 and 2019.

This is a new time, some workers say. Even as opposition remains from political power figures in the South — including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and a “Still No UAW” campaign launched in the weeks leading up to the election — supporters say the push against them isn’t as aggressive as before.

“This feels totally different than the first two times,” said Yolanda Peoples, 42, a 13-year VW worker. “The first two times when we tried to organize, we were like a secret society. We weren't even that free to speak about the union inside the plant.”

Support for the union this time isn’t hard to miss. On Sunday, three days before the National Labor Rights Board-sanctioned election, workers and community members supporting the unionization effort filled a union hall about 10 minutes from the plant, which produces the VW ID.4 EV as well as the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs.


Standing outside the hall during the event, workers Douglas Snyder, 39, a four-year employee, and Robert Soderstrom, 46, an 18-month employee, detailed why they’ve been promoting the union to their colleagues as members of the volunteer organizing committee.

Of course, there’s discussion of wages, benefits and vacation time, bedrock issues for UAW contracts in the auto industry and other sectors. But safety and ergonomics are also prime concerns that can motivate workers across an assembly plant.

“There’s a lot of things that we talk about daily that have nothing to do with compensation," Soderstrom said. "It's really hard to concentrate on building quality product when all you're doing all day long is thinking about how bad your shoulder hurts, or how bad your feet hurt or how bad your knees hurt."

Inside the union hall, would-be members formed a sea of bright red shirts emblazoned with the slogan “future UAW worker” and a UAW symbol stamped on the back in white. The crowd erupted in cheers while digging into hot dogs and hamburgers when Dariusz Dabrowski, the secretary-general of the European and global Works Council at Volkswagen, donned the same UAW shirt. Dabrowski came from Germany to support the UAW. The Works Council represents salary and hourly workers abroad.


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