What's the UAW's Next Priority: VW Contract or More Organizing?

April 29, 2024
After the Mercedes vote, Fain and the UAW will have to decide which of two distinct, but intertwined, “games” to prioritize.

While not exactly a surprise, the UAW’s recent win at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant still represents a watershed moment in the U.S. automotive industry. Why? It was not just the UAW’s first victory at a major foreign automaker, but also its first success in the historically union-resistant South. Moreover, an overwhelming 73% of employees voted in favor of unionization, at the same plant where the UAW had failed twice before, and despite strong opposition from local officials.  Remarkably, Volkswagen decided to stay neutral this time, even allowing voter education sessions inside the plant itself.

The UAW’s success is partially a sign of the times, as organized labor has regained lost relevance in the wake of globalization, technological disruption, rising inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. Public attitudes and the political climate have changed markedly, enabling union wins at several high-visibility employers, including Amazon and Starbucks.

But the UAW has also managed to change itself in the wake of corruption scandals that imprisoned several of its leaders. Last year, it elected a new president, Shawn Fain, who re-energized the organization and gained important concessions from the three Detroit automakers (D3) in a landmark agreement that gained widespread national media attention.

It made sense for Fain and the UAW to capitalize on their historic victory and immediately expand their unionization efforts from Detroit to Chattanooga. Volkswagen’s workers are already represented by unions in every country outside the U.S., while the German union – IG Metall – occupies half the seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, as required by German law. Moreover, the Lower Saxony government is a major Volkswagen shareholder, with two seats on its supervisory board, including a leader of the Social Democrat Party (SPD).

Nevertheless, Fain did take a significant personal risk as well.  In fact, there was strong internal pushback within the UAW itself – a union leader was demoted for resisting. If the Chattanooga vote had failed yet again, there would’ve been little hope of success elsewhere. Fain’s internal critics would’ve been vindicated and his presidency likely at risk. In addition, he surely would’ve been the target of personal attacks in the national media, given his enhanced profile after the D3 strikes. Instead, Fain has now cemented his position as America’s leading union leader and returned the UAW to a prominent role in the Democratic party, cheered on by the President he has openly endorsed.    

John Jullens and Marc Robinson are managing partners, strategy and risk management consultancy, Arbalete LLC.

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