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Can UAW Unionize the South? Volkswagen Tennessee Vote Could Change U.S. Labor Landscape

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Image Credit: Right: Volkswagen

On Wednesday, 4,000 Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, begin voting in a closely watched election on whether to organize with the United Auto Workers in what could be the union’s first big victory as they try to expand into the southern United States after huge contract wins in 2023 with Detroit companies General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Journalist Hamilton Nolan argues this is “probably the most important union election that this country has seen in years,” as unions attempt to challenge southern states’ economic policy of creating cheap, exploited labor to attract major corporations. “The South is really funneling money to international corporations for free, and the UAW is trying to put an end to that.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today, in a closely watched election, 4,000 Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, start to vote on whether to organize with the United Auto Workers. This could be the UAW’s first big victory as they try to expand into the southern United States after huge contract wins last year with the Detroit companies General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Pro-union Volkswagen workers in Tennessee spoke in a video produced by More Perfect Union.

VICTOR VAUGHN: Healthcare costs went up almost 15%, while they gave us a small 11% increase, after the Big Three negotiated their contract. Well, our insurance costs went up, so it ate it up. So we don’t see any of that.

KELCEY SMITH: Well, if you want to work for a company like this and they’re going to generate that kind of money, then why can’t we have our fair share, as well?

VICTOR VAUGHN: Volkswagen sales have shot out the roof, you know, $78 billion profit over the past three years.

ARNO ANTLITZ: We were able to grow revenues and underlying operating result in a difficult economic environment.

VICTOR VAUGHN: We’re the largest automaker in the world, but yet the employees are here struggling?

VW WORKER: The loudest voices of the anti-union, they keep trying to press this notion that if we unionize, Volkswagen is going to shut us down, they’re going to close our factory. They’re not going to pull it out just because 4,000 employees, out of 600,000, want to be organized, not to mention the fact that all of their other factories are organized.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Hamilton Nolan, journalist who writes about labor and politics for In These Times and his Substack, How Things Work, where his latest piece is “Trampoline Unionism: 'Power expands, it doesn't contract.’” His new book is The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor.

Hamilton, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about this epic struggle in Tennessee right now, the significance of the workers trying to unionize the Volkswagen plant.

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

This election is a big, big deal, probably the most important union election that this country has seen in years. It’s been decades since UAW or anyone has successfully unionized a big auto plant like this down south. And, you know, it’s important to understand that these companies are in the South in the first place because they think they can go there to escape unions, to escape regulation, to find more easily exploited workers. It’s essentially a form of domestic offshoring. Companies use the South the same way they use Mexico.

And so, the UAW, which is coming off a big, big win in a national strike last year, has taken that energy that they had from the strike and funneled it directly into a big, ambitious plan to organize not just one company down south, but all of the nonunion auto companies down south. And this Volkswagen election is the first one to come up for a vote, so this is really going to be a extremely important indicator as to whether the UAW can finally crack these nonunion auto plants down south. And if they’re able to successfully pull off this Volkswagen election — and I think that, you know, all the reporting on the ground indicates that cautious optimism is probably warranted here — if they’re able to win in Chattanooga, it sends a really powerful signal to all the other nonunion auto workers down south that this is not a dream, that this is not something they have to be afraid of, that this is something that can actually be done. And I think you could really see this, looking back, as the first domino in something that changes the entire South.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Hamilton, this plant is the only Volkswagen factory in the world without a union? How does the company — how did the company respond to the unionization effort and justify to its workers that this is the only plant that is not organized?

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. You know, particularly the European automakers are very used to working with unions all over the world. And the plants that they have down south are, in many cases, the only places where they don’t have unions. And still, I think, you know, Volkswagen has claimed to be neutral in this election, and I think the workers would tell you they probably haven’t quite been neutral.

But it really does go to illustrate how ridiculous the South’s kind of model of economic development is, which is, for many generations, the South has put forward a theory that the way to do economic development is just to give companies everything they want, to create an easily exploited and economically desperate workforce, and that is the thing that will attract businesses. And, you know, we saw six Southern governors come out with a joint statement yesterday warning workers not to join the UAW. And it was probably one of the most pathetic things I think we can ever see in our life, governors of U.S. states catering to international corporations before the workers who are citizens of their own states. So, again, you know, the South is really funneling money to international corporations for free, and the UAW is trying to put an end to that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as you say, there’s not only labor organizing spreading across the South, but there’s also major gains that occurred in California that you’ve written about, a $20 minimum wage for fast-food workers there. Can you talk about the importance of that?

HAMILTON NOLAN: Yeah. California recently passed the $20 minimum wage for fast-food workers. You know, A, it’s obviously something that’s good for fast-food workers. But, B, the interesting thing about that was it’s sort of a step down the road toward sectoral bargaining, which means, you know, the ability to negotiate wages and working conditions for entire industries at once, not having to go store to store to store, unionizing every store in order to get a contract at each fast-food outlet, which is nearly impossible and is why the fast-food industry doesn’t have any unions. You know, California establishing things like a wage board that can set a wage for a whole industry, it’s a really interesting kind of step towards thinking bigger about ways to empower workers on an industry-wide level. It’s something that a lot of people think is really the path for reaching workers on the scale that we need to reestablish union power in America, given how bad our labor laws are and how hard it is to organize at scale. And so, it’s encouraging, and it’s also, I think, an illustration of what you’re seeing all over the country, which is red states are running in a real negative direction on labor rights, and blue states, in response, are trying to become more and more progressive on labor rights. And I think that’s a trend that’s going to continue for a while.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 15 seconds, Hamilton, but I wanted to ask you about Shawn Fain, the head of UAW, being the guest of the Bidens at a White House dinner, and the UAW’s stance, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Do you think Shawn Fain is getting through to President Biden?

HAMILTON NOLAN: I don’t know if he’s getting through to President Biden. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence, based on what Biden has done, that Shawn Fain has got through to him on that point. Biden has done a lot of nice things for the UAW. But as you said, the UAW and many, many other unions, representing at this point the majority of union members in America, have called for a ceasefire in Gaza, and that is one issue that Biden is really not being responsive to the labor movement on. So I hope that changes.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Hamilton Nolan, labor journalist. His new book out is called The Hammer. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!

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