VW workers in U.S. South unionize!

April 24, 2024

After workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted overwhelmingly by three to one to join the United Auto Workers (UAW), a joke went around: “What do Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Robert E. Lee have in common? They both got beat up by the Union.” In 2019, Gov. Lee aided VW management in spreading the threat that a “YES” vote would lead to the plant being shuttered. That left workers with a narrow loss. But this time, workers, whose voting ended on April 19, rejected all the doomsaying that Lee and other Republican Southern governors had spread.


VW Workers stand up for their rights. Photo: UAW.

This time—six months after the UAW in the U.S. and Unifor in Canada went on strike and gained wage increases and began to claw back the givebacks that union bureaucrats had agreed to in 2008-09 during the Great Recession—it wasn’t even close. Workers, by a vote of 2,628-985, became the first foreign-owned auto plant in the South to join the UAW.

Previous organizing attempts at VW in 2014 and 2019 had little to offer auto workers who were not already solidly pro-union. The concessions that the Big Three had demanded in 2008 with their threat of going out of business were still in place long after car and truck sales had rebounded. The post-World War II gains from 50 years of auto worker militance were gutted, and newly hired workers were denied defined benefit pensions and paid a two-tier wage. Even more workers were designated as temporary, eligible for no benefits at all and wages under $15 an hour.

Many Big Three strikers who voted against ratification thought the strike did not go far enough in erasing the hated two-tier system or in restoring the traditional pension system, and even the average 26% wage gains over the four-year contract would leave many workers behind what they were paid 16 years earlier. But the corporations running Southern factories felt so threatened by the gains that UAW workers had forced from GM, Ford and Chrysler owner Stellantis that VW, as well as Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai, almost immediately raised wages from 9% to 14%. In effect it was the auto companies advertising to their factory workers the power of the union.


Likewise, the victory of VW workers is a beacon to other Southern auto workers, beginning with those working at Mercedes Benz in Vance, Ala. Beyond the South, even Tesla workers have been inspired to begin organizing a union. Tesla, under owner Elon Musk, has fought the organizing efforts at its Fremont, Calif., plant with mass firings, and tried to stall NLRB and court judgments in hopes of a more sympathetic judiciary next year. But even Tesla raised wages in January. Musk, meanwhile, announced over 14,000 layoffs worldwide, more than 10% of his global workforce.

Workers’ movements, from as far back as the 19th Century, have sometimes been blocked when bosses were able to introduce divisions between whites and Blacks, natives and immigrants, men and women. Because of an inability to confront all those racial and sexual divisions, the UAW never delivered on its promise to spearhead the organizing of Southern labor in the 1950s.

The victory of VW workers in Chattanooga gives hope that racial, ethnic and sexual divisions will not slow down this drive for auto worker solidarity in the South and across the country.

—Bob McGuire

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