After ten-year battle, a younger generation leads the way at Volkswagen Skip to content

After ten-year battle, a younger generation leads the way at Volkswagen

Another union vote is happening at the VW plant in Chattanooga. And this time, it may pass.

6 min read
The Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga (photo by Harrison Keely [CC BY 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years ago, Angelo Hernandez’s father was involved in the union drive at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. That effort narrowly failed, but a decade later, the son may be able to achieve his father’s dream.

“He was the one who, like, told me about the union before I was even in this job,” says the 20-year-old Hernandez.

When the current union drive got started late last year, his dad started pushing him to get involved. “I’m here and I’m gonna go for it right now,” Angelo says he told his dad.

For more than a decade, workers have fought, argued, and tried to persuade their colleagues to join a union. After the first loss at this Volkswagen plant in 2014, the United Auto Workers even established a minority union, Local 42.

But in two prior union elections in Chattanooga, the UAW was unable to move the needle enough to win, losing the first time, 626-712, and on a second try in 2019, 776-833. The U.S. remained the only country in the world where Volkswagen workers were non-union.

THINGS BEGAN TO CHANGE IN 2022, when Volkswagen expanded the plant to produce the all-electric ID.4. In the process, the company hired over 2,000 new workers.

With labor shortages throughout the manufacturing sector, many of the workers hired by Volkswagen were much younger and more diverse. Some had even moved from more pro-union parts of the country to work there.

While in the past, Volkswagen workers, who had less experience with unions, were skeptical of the bureaucracies of the scandal-tainted UAW, younger Southern workers seemed more receptive to trying something new.

“I just hope it goes through,” says 25-year-old Manny Perez. “And I’m not well informed about it. I just know. Being able to have a voice of your own is more important than just letting other people decide for you.”

Over the last decade, there has been a sea change among workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, in large part due to this newer, younger workforce. It could lead to a historic victory in the union election, which concludes today, and the signature victory for organized labor in the South that has eluded them for years. Votes will be tallied this evening.

“A lot of the people who’ve been staunchly anti-union are from an older generation,” says 32-year-old Caleb Michalski, a safety lead, who has worked on various assembly teams at the Volkswagen plant. “A lot of the younger generation, through a combination of social media and education and stuff like that, they realize, like, hey, it doesn’t make sense.”

VOLKSWAGEN HAS CLAIMED TO BE NEUTRAL in each campaign at the Tennessee plant. But under the radar, they have fought the union, while linking arms with leading politicians, who repeatedly warned that the plant would close or lose shifts. Southern governors are trying the same tactics this time around, signing a joint statement expressing alarm at the UAW campaign here and elsewhere.

In 2019, Volkswagen fired or transferred several unpopular shop floor managers, and brought back a popular plant manager, Frank Fisher, who promised to make things better.

“When I first started it was January 2020, immediately after the last election, and it was when, you know, the plant manager said, ‘Hey, let’s fix this in-house,’” says Michalski. “And they made a lot of changes. And so when I first started, right at the beginning of that first wave of changes, I was impressed by it.”

He said that the receptiveness of management made him believe that it was possible to get problems at work addressed without a union.

“Before, I was always like, ‘Well maybe the right people just don’t know,’” he says.

However, as a safety lead, Michalski found himself frustrated in his efforts to get issues addressed within the plant. Volkswagen regularly requires him and his co-workers to lift vehicles, which can weigh over 700 or 800 pounds, and sometimes as much as 1,400 pounds.

For nearly a year, he begged Volkswagen to get a hoist. They took little action, while many members of his team got hurt.

“I hurt my back in November, I’ve been having chronic pain for the last month, I can barely turn my head and neck,” says Michalski. “Every single one of us have gotten injured. We’ve had two guys that had to have shoulder surgeries, a third one that’s going to have to have shoulder surgery, and one guy shattered his kneecap.”

Michalski finally had to talk to the CEO of Volkswagen America to get a hoist approved. But weeks later, the hoist still hasn’t been installed.

“I shouldn’t have to talk to the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation just to get a hoist,” says Michalski. “I think that we need the ability to say, ‘Hey, this process is unsafe.’ And that’s it, not having to argue for weeks and weeks, and weeks of meetings to say like, ‘Hey, we need a hoist.’”

In addition to the decade-long battle to win hearts and minds at the plant, Volkswagen workers also say that the success of the “Stand Up Strike” at the Big Three U.S. automakers helped spur interest in the union.

“You have strike after strike happening around the country. You had the writers, the actors, and then UAW followed up,” says Volkswagen worker Zach Costello, speaking of the “Summer of Strikes” last year. “And then you had the big contract [UAW] got. That, like, sparked an insane amount of discussion around unions all around the plant.”

In the closing days of the campaign, workers say that Volkswagen’s anti-union tactics are having little effect on dissuading workers. Due to the influence of German labor law, the company has not yet engaged in anti-union “captive audience” meetings or one-on-one discussions, which can be lethal in killing union support.

Instead, anti-union forces at Volkswagen have largely focused on TV and online ads attempting to tie the UAW election to President Biden, who is unpopular in this red state, though perhaps not entirely at the plant. Near the entrance to the plant sits a banner that reads: “Back Biden, Vote UAW.”

In recent days, local TV ads and billboards have been blasting the UAW with messages like “UAW = Biden.” The union has endorsed Biden, who walked the picket line during the Big Three Stand Up Strike. In an official statement that the union has sent to its members, Biden congratulated workers in Chattanooga for the union drive. “As one of the world’s largest automakers, many Volkswagen plants internationally are unionized,” Biden said in the statement. “As the most pro-union president in American history, I believe American workers, too, should have a voice at work. The decision whether to join a union belongs to the workers.”

The ads are warning members repeatedly that their dues money will be spent on helping Biden’s re-election campaign.

“UAW membership nationwide is at its lowest point since 2009. Maybe the UAW should care more about its members than politics?” said anti-union groups in online ads blanketing Chattanooga.

With the Volkswagen plant located in “Trump country” in eastern Tennessee, UAW activists have responded by distancing themselves from the political function of their union.

“This vote is not about politics,” Volkswagen worker Isaac Meadows told the Prospect in an interview. “This vote is about the workers … standing up for themselves.”

Electing the UAW could inspire workers at other plants in the South to unionize. Already, the UAW has filed for a union election at a Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama, and it has several other campaigns under way.

Vanderbilt University sociology professor Josh Murray, who has spent years studying unionizing efforts in the South, thinks that a win at Volkswagen could create a domino effect.

“In social movement theory there is the idea of the ‘politics of the possible,’ which says movement success breeds future movement success because it mobilizes people by giving them evidence that winning is possible,” says Murray. “Applied to the UAW, the huge victory in the strikes against GM, Ford, and Stellantis makes victory at Volkswagen more likely, and a victory at Volkswagen would make further victories at currently non-unionized plants more likely.”

In the closing days of the third UAW election at Volkswagen in a decade, that hope is evident among workers and organizers.

“As far as workers reclaiming our power, it starts with us,” says Michalski. “And if we can be the first to start bringing organized labor to good-paying jobs with workers who have rights here in the South, I’m all for it.”


Written by Mike Elk of Payday Report. If you would like to donate to his work, click here.

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The Daily Wrap for Monday, 5/20

The Daily Wrap for Monday, 5/20

A very light news day, with most of the focus on the arrest of the golfer at the PGA last week. Of note, though, is Heather Cox Richardson’s summary of President Biden’s commencement speech at Morehouse.

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