Wed Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

Union Victory: Workers at Volkswagen Vote to Join the UAW

By ERNIE GOTTA

Workers at the Volkswagen (VW) factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., have voted to join the United Auto Workers union (UAW). The vote was an overwhelming success, with 73 percent or 2628 workers voting “yes” and only 27 percent or 985 workers voting “no.” This historic victory of approximately 4000 workers at Volkswagen was hard fought and overcame a long history of strong union-busting tactics that defeated two previous attempts, in 2014 and 2019.

What changed in 2024? The answer can be partially understood by the perception of the success of the UAW strike of the Big Three in 2023. Non-union autoworkers were inspired and contacted the UAW in unprecedented numbers.  At the April 2024 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, Zach Costello, a new UAW member from Volkswagen, commented, “When they saw the Big Three contract, everything changed. Even the anti-union workers came to us; they flipped! They flipped themselves. We had to do nothing.”

Costello continued, “If workers have no ownership of anything and no say, they can’t establish safety. … A workplace is made up of people. And a society is made up of workplaces. If those workplaces can’t secure basic safety for its people, what are we doing?”

The main demands that Costello prescribed include one health-care plan for everyone, with no premiums and no tiers, new safety regulations, and establishing a process to negotiate workload and safety.

Change of tactics

With the new reform leadership under Shawn Fain, the UAW also changed tactics to defeat the company’s union busting. It is nearly impossible for workers to win a union vote if the rank and file are not playing a leading role in the organizing, building their own organizing committees, committed to worker to worker organizing, and connecting their organizing drive to the community. Utilizing these methods, this time, the UAW leadership was able to counter the difficult but predictable anti-union campaign.

Their previous organizing model did not prepare workers enough. For example, in 2019, when local and state politicians backed up the company, Labor Noteswrites, “Business-backed astroturf groups flooded the airwaves and television with ads attacking the UAW. The state’s politicians threatened to withdraw support for state incentives tied to an upcoming plant expansion and production of a new electric vehicle.”

U.S. Volkswagen workers are no longer the lone nonunion VW factory in the world. The other union factories around the globe have clearly not affected VW’s bottom line or its payouts to wealthy investors. In fact, the company has had a much higher profit margin in the recent period than any of the Big Three U.S. auto corporations.

Organize the unorganized! Organize the South!

Perhaps most importantly, this victory opens up a direct path to a broader organizing drive in the auto industry and in particular in organizing for higher wages, better working conditions, and benefits across the South. On April 5, before the votes at Volkswagen were cast, workers at Mercedes in Vance, Ala., had filed for a union election. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) scheduled a vote for May 13-17. Some 5000 workers at Mercedes will have the chance to vote to join the UAW and build on the momentum of the Chattanooga vote.

Gaining a foothold in the South could in turn inspire autoworkers in other regions of the country—i.e., at places like Rivian in Normal, Ill.—to push forward on their own union drives. In November 2023, a UAW press release quoted Rivian worker Lori Paton, who had started working at the electric vehicle (EV) startup Rivian at its Bloomington, Ill., assembly plant in October 2022. She said: “‘The company likes to tell us we’re making the plane while flying it, and that explains a lot about the problems we have,’ said Paton, a team member in the Chassis 3 group. ‘We have all sorts of safety issues. Turnover is terrible. Every group has a story about a new employee who did not make it to first break. The lack of safety, the low pay, the forced overtime, there are so many reasons we need to be union.’”

The miserable working conditions and typical tricks of the bosses were highlighted at the Labor Notes conference on April 19 when a Rivian worker commented on the organizing drive, “We got a bump in wages but also a bump in workdays. Now they are making us work 10 hours a day.”

What’s next? Class independence!

Workers’ Voice congratulates the autoworkers in Chattanooga. The organizing drives underway across the country are an inspiration for all workers. While there is an excitement about the potential for a resurgence in union militancy, union representation is nevertheless declining overall. The Pew Research Center writes, “The share of U.S. workers who belong to a union has fallen since 1983, when 20.1% of American workers were union members. In 2023, 10.0% of U.S. workers were in a union. Views about the decline in union membership have changed only modestly since last year, when 58% said it was bad for the country. There has been no change in views about its impact on working people.

Unfortunately, any motion toward a resurgence of working-class militancy is hobbled by the fact that workers are saddled politically to the Democratic Party. The party consistently opposes the interests of the working class, and directs the union bureaucracy, NGOs, and nonprofits back toward supporting the interests of the ruling class. The only way forward is for rank-and-file workers to break with the parties of the ruling class and set out on an independent path. This means the construction of a workers’ or labor party that could potentially shift the balance of power and put workers into the driver’s seat.

We encourage our readers to help support these union drives through expressions of solidarity, encouraging autoworkers you may know to support the efforts to unionize, or even finding work in nonunion shops to help expand the union drive.

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