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Forming a union in the United States of America: Volkswagen workers demand their rights

Forming a union in the United States of America: Volkswagen workers demand their rights

In the USA, Volkswagen faces different circumstances than it does in Europe. Photo: DPA/Freso Jentsch

It's about wages, hours and social benefits: A union at the Chattanooga site has failed twice — but the project may be successful this time.

It's not every day that the US President congratulates a German car company. But the kind words that Joe Biden addressed to the American Volkswagen subsidiary a few days ago were not directed to the administration, but rather to the employees. Their representatives had previously officially registered the vote to form the union. “Many Volkswagen plants around the world have employee representatives. As the most pro-union president in American history, I am convinced that American workers should have a voice, too,” Biden wrote.

Wages are poor in the southern United States

Company management at the Chattanooga site, where 5,500 women and men are building the ID.4 electric concept and the Atlas SUV, might not be so enthusiastic, even if VW is officially neutral. Regional business representatives and Republican politicians in conservative Tennessee have strongly opposed creating a union in the past. Like its German rivals BMW and Mercedes, VW deliberately opened its plant in the southern US in 2011 because wages are lower here and unions are weak.

The UAW wants that to change now. Their representatives tried to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga twice – in 2014 and 2019. Both times they failed by narrow margins. Five years ago, 48% of workers voted to form a union. 57 votes missing. Now, according to the UAW, about two-thirds have signed the renewed formal request for a vote. Experience shows that support collapses even by secret ballot. However, the UAW calls it a “milestone” and is convinced that the attempt will be successful this time.

“Coworkers are interacting like never before,” says Steve Cochran, president of UAW Local 42. “There are a lot of young workers at the plant now, and they don't want to put up with bad treatment from management.” In a union video, Cochran criticizes not only wages but also staggered work hours and low social benefits. “Why do VW workers around the world get better conditions than we do in Tennessee?” Cochran asks.

With the labor shortage, the social climate changed

It is not only the support of the US President that fuels the optimism of the UAW people that their third attempt at Volkswagen will be successful. With the labor shortage, the overall social climate changed in favor of employees. But above all, the UAW used a six-week strike last fall to force aggressive wage increases, inflation compensation and increased social benefits at the three US automakers, General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Since then, the gap between the organized “Big Three” in the Midwest and the non-union foreign automakers of the South — in addition to German companies, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo — has been centered here. – It expanded.

According to UAW statistics, the average worker currently earns $23.40 per hour at Volkswagen and $25.12 per hour at Ford. By 2028, the gap will increase significantly: a Volkswagen employee will receive an hourly wage of $32.40 and his Ford colleague will receive $42.49. The differences in social benefits are even more dramatic: After being laid off, a Volkswagen worker relies on state unemployment insurance in Tennessee, from which he receives a maximum of $275 a week for six months. On the other hand, Ford is increasing the state benefit to 95 percent of the last net wage for two years.

Approval is considered a formality

In the USA, a union must be registered. Documents related to Volkswagen have been with the responsible authority, the National Labor Relations Board, since the beginning of the week. Approval is considered a formality. The final vote could take place this spring.

The union had complained in the past that the company's management had created a mood against employee representatives staying in meetings during working hours. But Volkswagen management confirms that it will “fully support the elections.” Volkswagen is proud to offer some of the “best-paying jobs in the region,” company spokesman Michael Loder said. If the vote is successful, a less desirable distinction will be added: Volkswagen will become the first foreign automaker to unionize in the United States.