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This story originally appeared in Labor Notes on Apr. 19, 2024. It is shared here with permission.

In a watershed victory, workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted tonight “UAW, yes!” The company’s sole non-union plant will finally join the rest of the world.

“If Volkswagen workers at plants in Germany and Mexico have unions, why not us?” said equipment operator Briam Calderon in Spanish, ahead of the vote.

“Just like Martin Luther King had a dream, we have a dream at Volkswagen that we will be UAW one day,” said Renee Berry, a logistic worker on the organizing committee who’s worked at the plant for 14 years.

The UAW is riding a wave of momentum after winning landmark contracts at the Big 3 automakers last year. Production workers at Volkswagen earn $23 per hour and top out above $32, compared to $43 for production workers at Ford’s Spring Hill assembly plant by the contract’s end in 2028.

“We could see what other auto workers were making compared to what we were making,” said Yolanda Peoples, a member of the organizing committee on the engine assembly line.

To head off a union drive, Volkswagen boosted wages 11 percent to match the immediate raise UAW members received at Ford. Peoples saw her pay jump from $29 to $32 an hour.

“When they went on strike, we paid close attention just to see what happened. Once they won their contract, it changed a lot of people from anti-union to pro-union members,” said Peoples.

Today’s vote was a key test of whether the union could springboard the strike gains to propel new organizing in longtime anti-union bastions in the South, the anchors of big investments in the electric-vehicle transition.

The vote was 2,628 in favor of forming a union to 985 against. There were seven challenged ballots, and three voided; 4,326 workers were eligible to vote.

Previous efforts at this plant in 2014 and 2019 had gone down to narrow defeats. Ahead of the vote, workers said their co-workers had learned from those losses.

They brushed off threats that a union would make the plant less competitive and lead it to close. After all, VW invested $800 million here in 2019 to produce the I.D. Electric SUV.

“We have seen the enemy’s playbook twice, and they don’t have any new moves,” said Zach Costello, a member of the organizing committee and a trainer on the assembly line. “It’s the greatest hits now.”

The organizing committee beat the predictable anti-union talking points with conversations across the plant.

“At the end of the day, we’ve been focusing all our time and attention on the people who matter,” said organizing committee member Isaac Meadows, “and it’s our co-workers who cast votes.

“Now Mercedes workers [in Alabama] are right behind us. We’ve set the stage for them to win and they will create the momentum for Hyundai and Toyota.”

Mercedes workers will vote from May 13-16, with a ballot count on the 17.

Turning to fellow workers

Angel Gomez knows the benefits that come with a union card, having been a steward with the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Teamsters at two previous jobs.

Gomez followed his family to Tennessee after working at Smithfield Foods and Molson Coors in Wisconsin, as well as Ford in New Jersey, where his father put in 30 years. He was hired at VW last November. He works on the underbodies of gleaming Atlas SUVs as they travel down the line at a steady clip.

“At first I wasn’t involved in the union,” Gomez said, because the moment he opened his mouth people knew he was from up North; he didn’t want them to write him off while he was still getting acclimated. “Down here I’m the Yankee. Perception is everything. I didn’t want people to see a slick-talking New Yorker from the Bronx.”

But despite his trepidations, soon people were approaching him to talk about problems at the plant: “People started telling me—white, Black, it didn’t matter—about all the favoritism.”

He started talking to a handful of Spanish-speaking workers from Venezuela, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico—who saw in a Puerto Rican worker someone from their culture, who could shed light on the union drive because of his own union experiences.

“I took a special interest in looking out for people who do their thing, take care of their families, and they always get f—ed with at the job,” Gomez said. He said these people tended to be Spanish-speaking workers who kept their heads down and did as they were told.

He said he convinced the Latino workers in his department to vote for the union. But he doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges. Some people think “if you don’t believe in what uncle daddy Trump is telling you, then you’re a bad person,” he said. “That’s been the biggest drawback—the whole political aspect coming from the right.”

No partisan politics

Meadows said the worker-organizers had learned from past drives not to get too drawn into partisan politics, and that conducting house visits wasn’t worth the backlash.

Instead, this time around, workers emphasized talking to their co-workers on the shop floor, covering 90 percent of the plant with leaders on every line.

They also kept the focus on workers improving their jobs and bettering the lives of their families, rather than getting drawn into a fight with GOP actors, an astroturf campaign, or a billboard war.

“Partisan politics has nothing to do with what we’re doing here,” said Meadows.

A recent poll conducted for the conservative Beacon Center found that 44 percent of respondents statewide in Tennessee viewed the UAW favorably, while just 19 percent viewed it unfavorably.

Ahead of the vote, Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee warned workers they shouldn’t “risk their future” by voting for the UAW and urged them not to give up “the freedom to decide it themselves and hand that over to a negotiator on their behalf.”

“His message is wrong,” said Meadows. “Right now, the only choice we have at this place is, do I stay or do I quit.”

Lee was reprising his role from 2019, when he also opposed the drive, stumping alongside the plant’s chief executive officer. At the time, Meadows said, workers booed the governor, and the union drive lost support because of it. This time they’ve grown their committees by focusing on each other instead of the politicians.

“People for the most part are smartening up. And they’re not paying attention to the political crap,” said Gomez. “The politicians know nothing about blue-collar work. They are born with a silver spoon in their mouths.”

Take Governor Lee, heir to a wealthy construction family business with annual revenues upwards of $220 million in 2019 when he became governor.

“We are driving this ship”

Like last time, there was a union-busting website,, this time with a social media post from former President Trump attacking UAW President Shawn Fain and equating voting for the union with supporting President Biden.

But the anti-union Facebook page only had 15 “likes” as of this week. Previous opposition groups counted hundreds of open supporters. Tennesseans for Economic Freedom, a business group, ran Facebook ads emblazoned with the message: “UAW would spend our paychecks on politics.”

“They still have not realized that we are making the decision for ourselves,” said Victor Vaughn, a member of the organizing committee. “We are the ones driving this ship.”

Congressperson Chuck Fleischmann got the message. Even though he opposed the last drive, this time Fleischmann bucked his Republican colleagues and refused to intervene. “This is something that I’m going to let the workers decide,” he told HuffPost.

Overall, the GOP campaign against the current UAW organizing wave hasn’t been as vicious or coordinated as in previous drives. Only after the union filed for elections in Alabama and Tennessee did the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas issue a joint statement opposing the union.

They wrote that they were seeing “the fallout of the Detroit Three strike with those automakers rethinking investments and cutting jobs. Putting businesses in our states in that position is the last thing we want to do.”

The threats are implied. But compare that to 2014, when Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said the VW plant would get a new SUV production line if workers rejected the UAW, and state politicians threatened to withhold tax incentives should workers vote the UAW in.

Talking paper

In the lead-up to this week’s election, supervisors would read verbatim from a company newsletter called “The Talking Paper,” written in such a way that it cast doubts about the union without crossing over into unfair labor practice territory.

“Every time the ‘Talking Paper’ comes out,” Costello said, “even my supervisor is like ‘It’s gonna take a while,’ because they have to read every word as it is written. They cannot Cliff Notes it.”

Even so, the lion’s share of the unfair labor practice charges the UAW has filed in this organizing wave so far have been at Volkswagen. “We’ve seen the liars that they are when they say they’re neutral,” Costello said.

To beat past union drives, the company promised to boost wages and address safety. But workers said these turned out to be empty promises. In 2019, Volkswagen brought back the company president who had originally opened the plant.

“Everybody loved Frank Fisher,” said Peoples, who was hired in 2011. “So when he came and pleaded, and pretty much said, ‘Give Volkswagen one more chance here in Chattanooga, we aren’t finished yet, we’re going to make some changes, and I’ll be right here with you,’ that pretty much swayed a lot of people and turned their votes into nos.”

“People understand that they’re just trying to trick us one more time like they did the two times previously,” said Vaughn.

Costello said Volkswagen shipped Fisher back to Germany soon after the vote. “The conditions in the plant slammed back to the brutal meat grinder that it always was,” he said. “And we have carried that with us into this campaign.”

Renee sustained multiple surgeries in her long tenure at the plant. Going into the campaign, she said safety was her top concern. “I want to come out of work the same way I came in,” she said. But conditions at the plant have deteriorated to the point where she says workers agonize over whether they’ll come out of work alive or maimed.

“You may lose a leg or a hand,” she said. “I got synthetic in my shoulder” from a rotator cuff tear. “I have a three-year-old granddaughter who I can’t pick up. So my life has changed, but I’m still going to keep going because I’ve put too much blood, sweat and tears into this plant.”

Gateway to the South

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein compared tonight’s win to the Union Army’s victory in Chattanooga in 1863, during the U.S. Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it “the gateway to the South.”

Taking Chattanooga, Lichtenstein said, “opened the door to the capture of Atlanta, the rest of Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“With UAW’s win at Volkswagen, another gateway to the South has been opened. No longer will the wage-and-benefit standards of the million-strong auto workforce in the U.S. be set by the non-union portion of the industry. A militant and increasingly powerful UAW will set the standard.”

Costello, too, sees new horizons opening up. “If workers can unite in this country, I think we can move a lot,” he said. “We could even effect change that goes beyond our workplace.”

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