Home & Leisure

How the UAW is winning over new plants -- starting with Volkswagen

Josh Eidelson, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

The United Auto Workers is on the cusp of a significant milestone in its audacious effort to grow by 150,000 people across 13 automakers, including Tesla Inc., BMW AG and Nissan Motor Co.

This week, a Volkswagen AG factory will vote on whether to become the only foreign commercial carmaker unionized in the US. It would also be the first vehicle plant to join the UAW since last fall’s strike led to record-breaking wage gains, giving the union a key foothold in the South.

“We’re going to be the first domino to fall and encourage these other plants to get out there with us,” said Isaac Meadows, a member of the organizing committee at the Tennessee factory.

The UAW has been banking on one victory to spawn others, like how the Starbucks union used a win at a New York State cafe in 2021 to help organize hundreds more. Other UAW efforts are underway in various stages at dozens of plants across the US, including Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Toyota, Rivian and Tesla sites.

“If the union movement is going to make a legitimate comeback, it’s going to be through these types of Volkswagen, Mercedes elections,” said Roger King, senior labor and employment counsel for the HR Policy Association. Success at those plants could also show that UAW President Shawn Fain is the “real thing, and he’s going to deliver on his promise to totally unionize auto production in this country,” King said.

A defeat at VW, however, could do as much to derail momentum as a victory would fuel it.


While several companies raised wages at non-union plants after the UAW’s historic contract victories, generous concessions to unionized workers may ultimately force other cost-cutting moves like layoffs, business advocates say. Automakers have said steep labor costs could endanger their competitiveness, particularly while spending billions on the rocky transition to electric vehicles.

Active UAW membership has plummeted from a peak of 1.5 million in the 1970s to around 370,000 today due in large part to a failure to organize foreign automakers’ US factories. At the VW plant in Chattanooga, the union narrowly lost two elections — one in 2014 and another in 2019.

During the most recent attempt, the UAW was facing a federal investigation into corruption among union officials. Yolanda Peoples, a 13-year employee at the factory, said workers were afraid to vocally support the union out of fear for losing their jobs. Ahead of the vote, VW brought in Tennessee’s governor and deployed the plant’s then-chief executive officer to urge workers to vote no, according to employees who worked there at the time.

This time around, the UAW has recruited hundreds of people to the plant’s organizing committee, boosting their odds of success. Collectively, they have relationships with over 90% of the 4,300 person staff, according to employees. That helped the union sign up what it says is a “supermajority” of the plant’s employees before petitioning for a vote.


swipe to next page

©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


blog comments powered by Disqus