UAW makes history by organizing a VW plant in the South, now what?

Organizing efforts at Volkswagen in Tennessee could just be the start for the United Auto Workers.

Volkswagen automobile plant employee Kiara Hughes celebrates after employees voted to join the UAW union Friday, April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Volkswagen automobile plant employee Kiara Hughes celebrates after employees voted to join the UAW union Friday, April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Over the weekend, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee announced the results of their vote to join the United Auto Workers union.The vote is a victory for the workers and the UAW, which has long tried to organize foreign automakers – including failed efforts at the same plant in 2014 and 2019.

Is it the start of something big for the labor movement?

“It certainly is a strong opening shot across the bow,” says Barry Eidlin, a labor expert and McGill University professor.

Barry Eidlin is a labor expert and an associate professor of Sociology at McGill University.

He says this victory started with the election of Shawn Fain as president and continued with the UAW contracts with Detroit’s Big Three.

“We’re starting to see the the spillover effects with this victory at Chattanooga. And then we see the dominoes lining up with Mercedes, and Hyundai, and Honda and all these other foreign transplants.”

There has been political pushback, but less so. Not enough to affect the organizing out in the open.

“This is a very different mood than these previous campaigns where a lot of it was done in secret,” Eidlin said.

The efforts — should they continue to spread to other automakers — might even be welcomed by Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Stellantis.

“That kind of levels the competitive playing field for the Big Three,” Eidlin said.  “I don’t know if they’re gonna be cheering the UAW after what Shawn Fain did to them, but they certainly could see the silver lining of it.”

Eidlin expects expansion of the union workforce to have dramatic effects in other parts of the auto industry.

“There’s these structures in place, that mean that a victory in one place can have these reverberations throughout the supply chain,” he said.

This could mean a sea change in the Deep South.

“This organizing campaign is a threat to their business model,” Eidlin said. “They have built their political careers around touting the U.S. South as this low wage and compliant workforce that businesses can come to and exploit as they see fit. And the UAW is trying to put an end to that. So yes, they’re gonna fight.”

Mercedes will vote to join the UAW next month.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.