Some VW Chattanooga employees launch new effort to join United Auto Workers

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Visitors get a chance to look over new vehicles during the unveiling of the Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV at the Chattanooga Volkswagen assembly plant in October 2022.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Visitors get a chance to look over new vehicles during the unveiling of the Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV at the Chattanooga Volkswagen assembly plant in October 2022.

Some Volkswagen employees at the company's Chattanooga assembly plant Thursday launched an organizing campaign to align with the United Auto Workers.

Employees said they've already garnered more than 1,000 worker signatures on union authorization cards. Under labor law, 30% of the bargaining unit of employees is needed to secure a vote, which would be the third election of the blue-collar workforce since 2014.

Steve Cochran, a skilled team member and a leader in the unionizing effort at the plant, said there are a lot of young workers at the 5,000-employee factory, and they want respect.

"They're not OK with mistreatment by management," he said in a statement. "They see what's happening at Starbucks and Amazon. They know that standing up to join the union is how you win fair treatment, fair pay and a better life."

Vicky Holloway, a production team member in VW's body shop quality area, said the company isn't putting workers into jobs because they have the experience or the qualifications.

"They're just handpicking whoever they want," she said in a statement. "We need the union so people with the right experience are put into the right positions. Safety has to come first."

The UAW lost earlier votes to unionize the plant's workers in 2014 and 2019 as anti-union employees fought off aggressive bids.

In 2019, the vote was 833 against the union to 776 for the UAW, or 51.8% to 48.2%.

(READ MORE: Union loses again at Volkswagen Chattanooga)

In the 2014 election, the margin was 53.2% against the union and 46.8% for the UAW.

After both votes, anti-union workers said the UAW wasn't needed.

But earlier this year, the UAW won sizeable contracts with the Detroit Three automakers.

UAW President Shawn Fain told The Associated Press last month that workers at some nonunion plants contacted the group about joining the union.

"Companies play their workers as fools sometimes," he said. "They care about keeping more for themselves and leaving the employees to fend for themselves."

Several nonunion automakers, including Volkswagen, announced pay hikes for workers after the UAW won new contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

Volkswagen said last month it's providing an 11% pay raise for production workers in Chattanooga, starting in December.

"Volkswagen of America annually evaluates compensation for our production team members at the end of the year to ensure we continue to offer a competitive and robust compensation package designed to attract and motivate employees who make our daily operations possible at the plant," the automaker said in a statement.

(READ MORE: Volkswagen Chattanooga provides 11% raise)

Starting wages at the plant are now $23.42 an hour, rising to a maximum of $32.40, the company said.

Also, VW announced a compressed wage progression, meaning employees can go from starting wages to topped out wages in a shorter timeline, according to the automaker.

Volkswagen didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday.

But Pablo Di Si, Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive, said in an interview earlier this year at the plant the company has a neutral position when it comes to union efforts.

"We respect what the employees decide, but at the end of the day, a dialogue is needed between management and employees," he said. "You can use a third party or a union, or direct contact -- that's what we're doing. We treat them well, train them, give a competitive wage, listen to concerns, dialogue, we have that."

A video released Thursday touting the UAW drive said pay isn't keeping up and benefits aren't what they should be at the plant.

"For years, the company and their big-money allies have tried to keep us down. But times have changed. Our time is now," the video said. "We're ready to stand up and join the UAW."

Thursday, production team member Billy Quigg said he's proud of the Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport and ID.4 SUVs built at the plant, but he's not happy about the way workers are treated.

"The forced overtime on Saturdays, the lack of time off -- it keeps us away from our families," he said in a statement. "That's why we're building the union. When people have a good job and time to spend with our families, we'll help the whole community thrive."

Josh Epperson, an equipment operator in assembly at the plant, said turnover at the factory is a serious problem.

"I have trained new people on the line, and most of them are gone in a few months," he said in a statement. "They don't have the tools and the support they need to thrive. With the union, we can improve working conditions."

Earlier this year, Volkswagen Chattanooga said it planned to hire more than 500 additional workers, solidifying it as Hamilton County's largest private employer.

"There's high demand for all of the cars. All three vehicles are doing well," said Burkhard Ulrich, VW Chattanooga's senior vice president for human resources, in an interview.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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