Having recently entered talks with Volkswagen about unionizing its new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the United Auto Workers believes the American South is a key region for regaining influence in the auto industry, according to Reuters. Although it’s had no success organizing so-called transnational automakers such as Nissan and Hyundai, which have plants in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, the UAW sees Volkswagen as a foot in the door for winning over the predominantly anti-union workforce of the South.
Director of UAW Region 8 Gary Casteel resonates the belief of UAW President Bob King that winning votes in the South, where most of the nonunion plants are located, is crucial for the union’s future success. Casteel says that Volkswagen is the latest target for the UAW, which began talks with VW employee representatives earlier this week. The German automaker may be more open to the UAW’s proposal, as it has experience dealing with union workers represented by German labor union IG Metall in its home country. In past speeches, King has cited the “German example” as a way to approach his proposed less adversarial relationship with the Detroit Three, as that would include having union representation on the boards of those automakers.
Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California-Berkley, calls this idea “unprecedented,” as it involves interaction with company executives — allowing the UAW a chance to make its case to management about the benefits of unionizing. Board representation could be a point that comes up when the union sits down with each of the three major U.S. automakers later this month to negotiate new four-year agreements. But Shaiken sees winning VW and other foreign automakers as a bigger step for the union, suggesting that courting the Detroit Three is not what the UAW should focus on in the grander scheme of things.
“Simply put, if [the UAW] is bargaining for the three Detroit automakers, that is an increasingly smaller share of the pie in the U.S., even if that stabilizes or grows,” Shaiken said.
King himself has said in the past that gaining ground with foreign automakers will be vital to the union’s survival, saying, “If we don’t organize the transnationals, I don’t think there is a long-term future for the UAW.”
After failing to organize every other transplant automakers’ factory workers, including those of Japanese auto giant Toyota, success at VW’s Chatanooga plant would set a precedent for unionizing Southern auto labor — possibly influencing other factories in the region. Talks between the UAW and Volkswagen remain ongoing.