How the UAW organized in anti-union country

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

 Abstract: Those curious about the development of organized labour watched in awe as the UAW successfully organized the only non-union Volkswagen auto plant in the world. They did this after two failed attempts, and in an environment where business wields significant authority over local economies. Unbeknownst to a lot of workers looking for inspiration, this successful effort came after rank-and-file members reformed their union; chasing out corruption and ineffective leadership. Rather than cast away their union cards, they turned to democratize their union, and have benefited from record wage increases, and a growing appreciation for the power workers hold.

Twice before, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had tried and failed to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A decade later, many of the same workers, who were inspired by the union’s ability to win against ‘the Big 3’ automakers, voted overwhelmingly to support the union, turning the company’s sole non-union plant (on Earth) into a UAW shop. Cited professor Josh Murray shines light on what led to this change, calling what the UAW accomplished against Ford, Chrysler, Stellantis – the Big 3 – and now Volkswagen as the “politics of possible”: once there is evidence that a movement can win, it then leads to future successes. People who were otherwise demotivated now have an example that what they want is possible, and become inspired to act on it.

Rolling on from this victory, the UAW, having collected enough ‘union cards’ to call for an election, is slated to have Mercedes workers in Vance, Alabama vote to become a UAW shop by May 17. The hope is the UAW, and another group of workers, find success by coming together and demanding better.

Understanding the breadth of this success in a deeply hostile, anti-union environment starts with the workers on the shop floor who, twice before, opted to vote against the union and to entrust the company to resolve their problems. What changed was the pandemic economy; the success of the UAW; the efforts inside the union to snuff out corruption; a new influx of investment and younger-workers; and ignored promises by the company created the concoction necessary for workers to find the courage to organize themselves into a bargaining unit.

When workers come together, anything is possible.

Most of us join already certified bargaining units that are – like many of our GSU contracts – decades old. We are then a generation or two away from the first effort, led by workers, to certify our union, and the reasons why they did it. Yet we benefit from their efforts.

To win that sort of legal recognition today, workers climb a long, steep, and treacherous hill to their first contract. The ‘politics of possible’, namely with organizing unions, has been hindered purposefully by legislation which puts worker organizers’ jobs on the line, face hostility and threats in the workplace, and the company in a place to drag out negotiations for years, stiffing workers on getting their first contract. This, combined with employer efforts to scare, intimidate, threaten, or bargain with individual employees to undermine the collective efforts, leads many workers to not bother democratizing their workplace (

This is what makes this UAW victory in Tennessee so remarkable.

What happened the last time around?

First, in 2014, when the UAW first announced that it would attempt to organize the Chattanooga plant, Volkswagen silently supported their efforts, considering the German automaker had, at every single one of their other plants (even in Mexico), some form of worker representation. They invited the UAW in which resulted in a petition to unionize skilled trades responsible for the plant.  The petition was successful, but they lost the broader election. One of the most cited reasons for this was not because of an aggressive employer campaign, but as the result of Senator Bob Corker suggesting that if workers chose to unionize, they would see tax incentives withheld from the company and their new SUV line with them. This implication, according to the organizers at the time, persuaded or scared enough workers away from voting for the union.

In 2019, the UAW tried to unionize the facility again. Almost on queue, it was Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee who came to the company’s rescue, who pleaded with the workers during a coordinated facility visit that to join the union would mean job loss. Volkswagen changed their tune towards the union, too, and hired a union buster which drafted anti-union leaflets to be provided by middle-management, and a general crackdown on pro-union campaigning on company property.

After two failed attempts, all the UAW had accomplished was a minority union made up of skilled trade workers – Local 42 – which continued to advocate for workers organizing throughout the decade. They made little progress with their peers, until the conditions in the company changed.

Broken Promises, and a reformed union

Before the second vote in 2019, worker organizers thought it was an opportune time to try again to unionize their peers. This was until their own union let them down. 

Starting the investigation in 2019, the highest echelon of union officers, members, and executives in the UAW were investigated and later arrested by federal authorities who were caught perpetuating a mass conspiracy of embezzlement, kickbacks, and bribes by the employer. Deciding to vote for a union which had its most powerful officers accused of siphoning union dues for personal gain was the figurative nail in the coffin for the 2019 vote.

In the UAW proper, the same nail in the coffin for the Volkswagen organizing drive, had the opposite effect amongst a group calling themselves Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). They called for mass-democratization in the UAW, the end of all tiered pay structures, a more aggressive, member-driven form of negotiations, and most importantly, the end of corruption. The most notable change to institute the end of corruption was a referendum for “one member, one vote” to elect their union’s leadership.

Elected along with the reform group was President Shawn Fain, the now famous UAW leader who motivated his membership to take on the Big 3, with an ambition to unionize all automakers in the South. Through his efforts and the UAWD, workers who previously opposed the union changed their mind. Caleb Michalski, a safety lead, was one of those workers.

This meant, that by the time the UAW had finished negotiations or striking against the Big 3, the workers in Chattanooga were again piqued by these obvious reforms, and after safety requests and promised pay improvements were not respected by the company, the workers had enough, and voted overwhelmingly to have UAW represent them.