The UAW's decade-long fight to form a union at VW's Chattanooga plant : Planet Money (Note: This episode originally ran in 2023.)

Union membership in the U.S. has been declining for decades. But, in 2022, support for unions among Americans was the highest it's been in decades. This dissonance is due, in part, to the difficulties of one important phase in the life cycle of a union: setting up a union in the first place. One place where that has been particularly clear is at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Back in 2008, Volkswagen announced that they would be setting up production in the United States after a 20-year absence. They planned to build a new auto manufacturing plant in Chattanooga.

Volkswagen has plants all over the world, all of which have some kind of worker representation, and the company said that it wanted that for Chattanooga too. So, the United Auto Workers, the union that traditionally represents auto workers, thought they would be able to successfully unionize this plant.

They were wrong.

In this episode, we tell the story of the UAW's 10-year fight to unionize the Chattanooga plant. And, what other unions can learn from how badly that fight went for labor.

This episode was hosted by Amanda Aronczyk and Nick Fountain. It was produced by Willa Rubin. It was engineered by Josephine Nyounai, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez, and edited by Keith Romer. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

Help support Planet Money and get bonus episodes by subscribing to Planet Money+
in Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

The UAW's decade-long fight to form a union at VW's Chattanooga plant (Update)

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AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

That is where we left it back in October 2023. Now, as we know, things did, in the end, go well for the union, so what changed? What changed to flip so many votes at the Chattanooga plant? To answer that, we called up professor Stephen Silvia again.

STEPHEN SILVIA: If you want to start at what made things different, it was the election of Shawn Fain.

ARONCZYK: Shawn Fain became president of the United Auto Workers in March of 2023. And late last year, he led the UAW on strike nationally and won huge victories against the big three automakers. That's General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which used to be Chrysler.

SILVIA: Many people looking at it were in some ways skeptical at first, but the thing that was amazing is the way that the UAW was very clever in selecting tactics.

ARONCZYK: Traditionally, the UAW would target just one of the big three car companies at a time. But Shawn Fain threw out that old playbook, and the UAW decided to hold strikes at all big three companies at the same time - but not at every single plant. They picked strategic plants so when they shut one of these down, it meant that another plant downstream wouldn't be getting what they needed to do their jobs. So the whole thing was very disruptive to production, and it also let a lot more workers stay on the job, collecting paychecks.

SILVIA: By having a strike that would have a relatively small number of employees involved, you could shut down a significant amount of production. And they were very successful.

ARONCZYK: And as the workers in the Chattanooga plant watched all of this, another thing Stephen says that made Shawn Fain and the UAW seem more attractive was transparency. Workers got to watch the UAW negotiate in real time, often with livestreaming updates on the negotiations. Like, there's this one video where Shawn Fain gives his response to a Stellantis offer.

SHAWN FAIN: Everything they're looking for in this document is about concessions. So I'll tell you what I want to do with their proposal. I'm going to file it in its proper place because that's where it belongs, the trash, because that's what it is.

STEVE COCHRAN: Shawn is different because he is so transparent and honest with everyone. That's the thing that we like best about it.

ARONCZYK: This is Steve Cochran again, does maintenance for the Volkswagen factory in Tennessee. He's a union organizer. When I called him up, he was in his car driving home from work. Steve says that Shawn's transparency tactics were able to change some people's perceptions of unions in the South.

COCHRAN: Having all that done in the public eye was very, very, very eye-opening, very educational for a lot of people everywhere.

ARONCZYK: When we last left Steve, the union had just lost their third election. He and the other union organizers were getting ready to regroup. Since then, there's been one other big change, this time from the Volkswagen side.

COCHRAN: The company decided to stay neutral this time. You know, they didn't put out a big anti-union campaign. They didn't put out fear tactics to us. They said, hey, it's going to be your decision. Y'all decision is what it is, and we'll stay as neutral as possible. And they did.

ARONCZYK: Steve says this is because the brass at Volkswagen headquarters in Germany told the management at the Chattanooga factory that, you will not run an anti-union campaign. Because of that, the stalling tactics that the company had used last time did not come into play. So Steve Cochran said it was much easier to make his case this time, even in conservative Tennessee, which is a right-to-work state where unions are very politicized. They're considered aligned with the Democratic Party and are generally pretty unpopular.

COCHRAN: You have to understand, though, there's a lot of Republican voting people in Chattanooga, a lot of them. We're never going to tell anybody how they should or shouldn't vote. That'll never happen. But everybody put that aside. They put all that aside - said, we got to do it ourselves.

ARONCZYK: And then after all of those campaigns - four in the past dozen or so years - last week, workers at Steve Cochran's factory voted overwhelmingly to form a union.

COCHRAN: We had a watch party at the union office. And after we were there and stuff, there was some good fireworks going off and some people drinking a little bit of alcohol and stuff. Nothing got out of hand.

ARONCZYK: Steve, how did it feel to walk into work on the first day after the vote?

COCHRAN: It is a lot better feeling than walking in after a loss. I know that. I was very proud at the outcome and very - smiling and stuff, but I didn't gloat.

ARONCZYK: Steve said there were a couple of people who might have cheered a little, maybe a few handshakes, some high-fives. But mostly, people just got back to work side-by-side with their colleagues regardless of how they voted.

COCHRAN: We've been at this thing for 12 long years. And it's just - it's a great feeling now, you know? But honestly, people can disagree about something. We're still going to do our job, though, and build the best quality cars we can. That shows you the true grit.

ARONCZYK: And Steve's hoping that maybe this is the start of a new era of unionizing in the South.

COCHRAN: We're one of the first dominoes, you know? So if our domino knocks their domino and the next dominoes, this may be a huge, huge push throughout all of the automotive industry in the South.

ARONCZYK: The next domino Steve hopes will fall are the Mercedes factory in Vance, Ala., a Toyota engine plant in Missouri, a Hyundai plant in Alabama, and a plant that Volkswagen is currently building in South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: Our original episode was produced by Willa Rubin.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Engineered by Josephine Nyounai, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez and edited by Keith Romer. Ida Porizad (ph) helped with research. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer.

ARONCZYK: Today's update was produced by James Sneed, engineered by Valentina Rodríguez Sánchez and fact-checked by Sam Yellowhorse Kesler.

If you want to read more about union organizing at car manufacturing plants, Stephen Silvia has got a new book out. It's titled "UAW's Southern Gamble." Special thanks this week to Blake Farmer, Michael Gilliland and Bob King.

I'm Amanda Aronczyk.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thank you for listening.

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