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Inspired By Strike Wins, 1,000 Volkswagen Workers Sign Union Cards

Above photo: Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, announced that 1,000 of them have signed cards to join the Auto Workers. Still from UAW video.

Today workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant announced their third bid to unionize plant-wide with the Auto Workers (UAW).

Riding the momentum of its strike of the Big 3 automakers, the UAW now wants to double its numbers in the auto industry by adding 150,000 workers at companies that have long avoided unionization. Thirteen non-union automakers are on notice: Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, Mazda, Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, Volkswagen, and electric vehicle producers Rivian, Tesla, and Lucid.

The union says it has been inundated with calls and online sign-ups by workers at these firms. The Volkswagen drive is the first to go public, after 1,000 workers signed union cards.

The UAW’s two previous attempts to organize the full Chattanooga plant fell short narrowly. In 2014, workers lost by 86 votes. In 2019, the union came even closer, losing by just 57 votes with 93 percent turnout. There were 1,700 workers at the plant then. Some 3,800 workers today build the Atlas and Cross Sport SUVs, as well as the electric ID.4.

In 2015 a smaller group of skilled trades workers won their election by a vote of 108 to 44, joining UAW Local 42, which had formed as a minority union following the 2014 loss. But the company refused to negotiate with the smaller unit, delaying in the courts. The UAW quietly jettisoned the effort, filing instead for the full unit in 2019.

After the 2019 defeat, workers kept the flame of organizing alive, meeting regularly and running a petition for the right to use their paid time off outside the company’s annual weeklong maintenance shutdown.

Why now?

“You either keep pushing or die,” Steve Cochran, a skilled trades worker in the battery plant’s maintenance department, told NPR in October. Cochran was the president of the minority union, UAW Local 42.

The previous VW campaigns came while the UAW was on the defensive and often under attack publicly. Cochran told NPR how outside anti-union groups tried to smear the union drive in 2019 by tying the organizing to the FBI’s raid of the home of UAW President Gary Jones, who was later convicted of embezzling union funds and tax evasion.

The losses occurred while the union was under the control of the Administration Caucus, which members finally voted out of office last March. The new leaders, who ran on a platform of “no concessions, no corruption, no tiers,” promised a completely different organizing philosophy and practice. They won.

Under President Shawn Fain, the union is on the offense, having won its best contracts in decades at the Big 3. The new leaders have embraced creative tactics, militancy, and public battles with the major auto companies, at a time when automakers are raking in profits.

“We are going to organize like we’ve never organized before,” said Fain at a November Senate hearing chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, “because our strike has shown the Nissan worker in Alabama, the Volkswagen worker in Tennessee, and the Toyota worker in Kentucky, and the Tesla worker in California that when union members win, the entire working class wins.”

Record profits, no contracts

A big talking point during the recent strike was the quarter-trillion dollars in profits the Big 3 have made in the past decade. Now the UAW is spotlighting the profits of non-union companies like Volkswagen, which has made $184 billion in the past 10 years, according to the UAW.

The new organizing offensive comes as auto companies are opening up new electric vehicle and battery plants, seeking to take advantage of federal government subsidies and establish a strong position in the transition. Unemployment is low, giving workers more confidence, while inflation has eroded paychecks.

The union says that thousands of workers at non-union automakers are reaching out, inspired by the wins at the Big 3. Leaders hope the UAW can use this momentum to get over the hurdles that have prevented it for decades from organizing a single assembly plant not owned by the Big 3.

Auto workers are also taking note of the uptick in labor organizing across the country. “They see what’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon,” Cochran said in a press release. “They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay, and a better life.”

Billy Quigg, a production team member in assembly at the Chattanooga plant, was also involved in the minority union. Among his top reasons for backing the union push are forced overtime on Saturdays and a lack of time off. He was one of 700 Volkswagen workers who signed a June 2022 petition demanding the company “do better on quality of life issues related to our schedules.”

Pretending to catch up

In the wake of the strike at the Big 3, VW announced November 22 that it would raise wages by 11 percent.

Starting pay at Volkswagen is now $23.42 after the increase, with top pay rising to $32.40. The company said it would shorten the progression to top pay from seven years to four (the UAW’s progression at the Big 3 is now three years). Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Subaru, Nissan, and Volvo have also hiked wages. Toyota went a step further, shortening its progressions to top pay.

President Shawn Fain called it the “UAW bump,” and quipped that the union’s initials stood for “U. Are. Welcome.”

“It’s auto workers everywhere against corporate greed,” he said in October, responding Ford executive chair Bill Ford’s call for Big 3 auto workers to unite with management to compete against the non-union auto plants. “Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy—they’re the UAW members of the future.”

VW has also made concessions to workers to blunt earlier drives. In 2019, it started cooling the plant earlier in the week, changed the wardrobe policy to allow shorts, adjusted the shift schedule from five eight-hour days to four 10-hour days, and booted out abusive managers.

First of three steps

Volkswagen workers have met the first of three milestones in the UAW’s organizing plan: 30 percent have signed union cards. Once they reach 50 percent, union leaders, community allies, and family members will rally with the workers in public displays of the committee’s strength and community support.

At the 70 percent mark, and after having built up their organizing committee to include workers from every shift and job classification, workers will present the company with a choice: voluntarily recognize the union, or workers will file for a union authorization election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Times have changed and our time is now,” UAW’s new video tells workers, announcing the union drive. “The question isn’t, ‘Why do GM workers in Spring Hill or Ford workers in Louisville get a better life?’ The question is, why don’t we?”

Nordic solidarity strikes Tesla

Meanwhile in Sweden, workers have struck the U.S.-based electric automaker Tesla for the first time in its 20-year history, because the company has refused to bargain with 120 Swedish mechanics. More than 90 percent of Swedish workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

The Swedish Transport Workers’ Union launched a blockade in November, refusing to load or unload Tesla cars at ports. The Swedish Building Maintenance Workers’ Union stopped cleaning Tesla showrooms. The painters union has refused to work on Tesla vehicles; the electricians’ union has refused to repair Tesla chargers.

“Tesla’s running into a firestorm in the Nordic countries, with Denmark and Sweden giving it a taste of what unions can do if they have some leverage,” said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.

Just this week, Norway’s United Federation of Trade Unions will start blocking Teslas bound for Sweden, demanding the company sign a collective agreement with the Swedish Industrial Workers’ Union.

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