Several workers are shown standing side by side.

Volkswagen’s Chattanooga Plant Unionizes: What Does It Mean for the Auto Industry?

There must be something to the old saying, “The third time’s the charm.” United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest unions in North America, has plenty of members who work in the automotive industry in northern states, but spreading to the South has been rocky. Thanks to strong anti-union sentiment in southern states, previous attempts to unionize a Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant have failed. However, a 2024 attempt has succeeded at last. It’s major news, not only as a significant event in and of itself but also as a sign that things might be heading in a new direction across the industry.

What made this time different, and what does that difference mean for the automotive industry beyond this individual plant? Will this be the start of a trend or just an outlier? Let’s take a look at the details of this historic deal and take a look at what wider implications it might have.

Previous Attempts to Unionize

The Chattanooga plant at the center of this story had its grand opening in 2011. At that time, it was reported that Volkswagen was not only in talks with the UAW but also supported unionization. Michael Riffel, then head of Volkswagen Global Works, said, “For VW, it is a matter of course that its employees are unionized.” This makes sense since workers have a strong voice in how the company’s factories are operated back in Germany, the brand’s home country, as well as their northern plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania.

However, that supposed friendliness to unions didn’t result in workers joining the UAW, at least not immediately. In February 2014, a plant-wide vote resulted in workers voting no on unionization. That defeat wasn’t due to Volkswagen pushing back, but rather a mix of general anti-union sentiment in the area and local politicians speaking out against unionization. They warned that voting yes could mean fewer jobs in the future, while voting no could mean more significant projects being entrusted to the Chattanooga plant.

It’s possible that this vote made VW feel like it could change its attitude toward unionization without alienating its workforce. That might explain why VW stood in opposition when a group of maintenance workers at the plant wanted to hold a vote on joining the UAW in October 2015. When the vote was held that December and workers voted yes, VW decided to go to federal court to appeal the result. While VW claimed that it simply wanted to allow all of their employees to vote as a group, the UAW was not convinced, with the union’s head of organizing efforts in Chattanooga, Gary Casteel, accusing the automaker of “thumb[ing] its nose at the federal government over US labor law.” When the dust from the legal proceedings settled, the UAW was back to square one.

A few years later, workers were having disagreements with management and decided to hold a plant-wide election on unionizing. In addition to fighting against the anti-union sentiment of the area, the increasing anti-UAW sentiment of VW, and the meddling of local politicians (this time, the governor of Tennessee personally came down to the factory floor to warn workers against voting yes), the campaign to organize was also fighting against the drama of a corruption scandal facing UAW leadership. As a result, the 2019 vote also failed.

A Volkswagen employee is shown talking to a customer.

What Makes This Time Different?

Plenty of factors can explain why the 2024 vote had a different outcome from those in 2014 and 2019. Instead of being embroiled in scandal, the UAW is hot off the heels of a successful deal with the “Big Three” automakers up north, getting pay raises, increased 401K contributions, and cost-of-living increases tied to inflation for its workers. That had to have been an appealing prospect for workers in Chattanooga, dealing with the inflation from recent years that has raised the cost of everyday expenses like groceries. This may have caused some workers to re-evaluate their priorities, putting their pocketbooks ahead of their politics. On top of that, it seems like Volkswagen didn’t put up much of a fight this time, preferring to let the workers decide for themselves. All of that together resulted in a resounding victory for the UAW, with 73% of workers voting to unionize.

Southern Factories Won’t Go Down Without a Fight

UAW president Shawn Fain has called VW “the first domino to fall,” and said that he expects “more of the same to come,” thanks to workers who are fed up with current conditions. We didn’t have to wait long to see another domino fall into place. Less than a month after the Volkswagen vote was counted, workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama cast their own votes to decide whether or not to unionize. Pro-union workers have argued that they need to end the “Alabama discount,” referring to the cheap labor that automakers can find in the South. In response, the opposition has argued that the automakers are only in the South in the first place because of that cheap labor and might pack up and take their jobs with them if unionization spreads.

The vote was close, but in the end, 56.4% of the workers opposed the effort to unionize. However, that might not be the end of the story. The UAW alleges that Mercedes illegally interfered in the election by intimidating workers. Reportedly, the company played anti-union videos for workers at the start of their shifts, sent them text messages, and called them into meetings with lawyers where they were repeatedly told to vote no. If the UAW’s challenge is successful, a new election may be called, and things could go differently.

A technician is shown holding an engine reader.

The Sword of Damocles Hanging over the South

At the time of writing, we can’t yet know whether the unionization of the Chattanooga plant will turn out to be the shot heard around the south or a mere outlier. The Mercedes vote has been something of a mixed bag. The fact that it happened at all and was such a close race despite intense pressure is evidence that the anti-union sentiment of southern workers might be lessening, while the fact that the UAW failed to get a majority of the votes paints a different picture. Even in this individual case, it’s too soon to say what will happen until the UAW’s challenge makes its way through the system.

It’s fair to say that the possibility of unionization spreading to other factories is hanging heavy over the heads of anti-labor politicians and businesspeople throughout the South. They won’t give up without a fight, but neither will organizers who want to shore up the power of workers as the shift to electrification promises a shakeup in the auto industry. With many EVs being produced in southern factories, plenty of eyes will be on these states in the future. As this unstoppable force meets an immovable object, it could go either way.

That, in and of itself, is something new. Before the Chattanooga vote, pushes to unionize in the South were seen as somewhat pointless. Now, there’s reason to hope and a sense of forward momentum. There’s a good chance that this will give workers in automotive plants and battery plants throughout the region the encouragement they need to come together and create historic change in their industry.