What Happened in Chattanooga?

2014. The recent vote by workers in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee to decline representation by the United Auto Workers union (UAW) highlights the differences in labor policies between the United States and Germany.

With American union membership on the decline, this was the first time that the UAW attempted to represent workers in a foreign company in over a decade, and its failure sets a precedent for the future of unions in the American South.

Looking to its successes in Germany and elsewhere, Volkswagen was in favor of creating a German-style “works council” in Chattanooga that, due to American labor laws, would require the UAW to represent workers’ interests.

This was met with mixed reviews. In particular, workers worried that voting for union representation would scare away production of a new model of SUV, despite VW’s assurances that the UAW vote would have no effect on the decision to manufacture the SUV in Chattanooga. Politics also played a role in the outcome.

In the politically conservative South, several Tennessee government officials, with the help of anti-union action committees, were able to lead a successful campaign against the union. Some lawmakers warned that VW might not receive new tax incentives to expand in the state if the UAW was successful at the VW plant.

Furthermore, many workers were reportedly happy with current wages, felt that the company treated them well, and did not want the union to damage or muddy that dynamic. The vote has left Volkswagen still looking for a way to create a works council, even without the UAW.