April 20, 2024

Michaela Winter


On Friday, August 19, Tennessee workers won their union in a resounding watershed victory. After two heartbreaking union elections at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in 2014 and 2019, the votes have been tallied for a third, worker-led campaign to unionize the Volkswagen plant with the United Auto Workers. Workers overwhelmingly voted YES to join UAW. Despite facing interference from anti-worker politicians, workers in Chattanooga have made history.

Leading the South

The momentum of this win is groundbreaking for workers in Tennessee and represents the thrilling possibilities of workplace democracy not yet experienced in the majority of the southern United States. There is no doubt that this victory has arrived during a critical moment.

19 billion dollars of federal funding is being injected into Tennessee to support manufacturing and renewable energy infrastructure, and corporations have made it clear they plan to utilize similar funding in neighboring southern states. While the clean energy boom is set to create thousands of jobs, the risk of exploitation – in a region already disenfranchised by low-paying wages and poor safety standards – is a looming and urgent reality. Unless workers unite to demand their fair share of the clean energy future they will build. 

Workers will turn this energy towards union-hostile Alabama at a Mercedes plant in May before their election to join the UAW.

Lighting the Match

Workers have been organizing for a voice at Volkswagen as early as 2014, and again in 2019. Each election to join the UAW failed by a narrow margin and mostly lost ground when politicians began holding captive audience meetings

Just a year after the 2019 union drive, the impacts of a global pandemic spurred an awakening. Workers witnessed corporations put profits over their safety while also denying family-sustaining wages. Organizing efforts at Starbucks, REI, Google, Amazon, and more were soon making the headlines. And then, the #HotLaborSummer of 2023 produced a wave of exciting labor actions. Writers and actors, delivery drivers and teachers – workers were flexing their power. Maybe the most important to workers at the Chattanooga VW plant would be the UAW contract negotiations with the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors). The UAW’s historic “Stand Up Strike” and contract victories with the Big Three immediately rippled across non-union workforces. The fruits of organizing – a voice at work, better pay, and dignity – didn’t seem so far from grasp.

When We Fight We Win

More than 30 labor, faith, and community organizations rallied behind the Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, including Jobs With Justice East Tennessee. The infrastructure of solidarity JWJ East Tennessee and other community groups have cultivated continues to build a network of workers willing to throwdown – from contract fights to picket lines.

“As long as there is a U in UNION we have a fighting chance. The things that VW workers learned to do in this campaign cannot be taken from them. Listening, asking hard questions, speaking to media, deciding what changes they want, lifting their voices, overcoming fear of losing a job, telling politicians that workers can think for themselves, and standing shoulder to shoulder with other workers.

There are three places we call each other brothers and sisters: the family, the church, and the UNION. There is power in a union.”

June Rostan, Jobs With ET Co-Chair 

This victory is an opportunity for Tennessee workers to co-create fair and safe work environments. A UAW contract with Volkswagen will set the wage standards for manufacturing workers, as well as health and safety standards in preparation for the booming (and dangerous) electric vehicle battery industry. The success of these organized workers is critical to the people of Tennessee, their families, and the future of work in the South.

Jobs With Justice stands in solidarity with Local 42 as they take the monumental step of negotiating a first contract.

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