Growing up in Chattanooga, I never had much real exposure to unions. Sure, I heard the word, but only used with the typical Southern implications of angry picketers and low-quality products. I had never actually encountered an angry picketer, and I couldn’t have pointed out a union-made car on the street. I just knew that “unions were bad” because that’s what I’d always heard.
I moved away for a few years, and got a taste of what supporting myself was like. As I started to think about settling down somewhere, Chattanooga was high on my list. In the time I had been away, Chattanooga had become a greener city; a culturally diverse city. More importantly, though, Chattanooga had once again become an industrial city, managing to add thousands of new jobs during an economic slump when most businesses were laying employees off.
Volkswagen had a huge impact on Chattanooga’s economy, hiring more than 2,500 direct employees and creating thousands more jobs through parts suppliers and other supporting companies. I was lucky enough to be hired by Volkswagen while they were still setting up shop. I helped build the first Chattanooga-made Passats before the factory even had heating or cooling equipment installed.
In the more than three years that I have worked for Volkswagen, I’ve gotten to see firsthand what some of the differences between union and nonunion workplaces are. Early in my Volkswagen career, I was sent to Wolfsburg, Germany, for advanced training. Wolfsburg is the international headquarters of Volkswagen AG, and a vast majority of its eligible employees are members of a union. The workers there couldn’t believe that the Chattanooga workers didn’t have a union. They told me, over and over again, that their union was the reason they had good wages, stable employment, and fair treatment.
Their union gives them a voice in Volkswagen, but more importantly, it makes them a part of Volkswagen by giving them a stake in its success. Every Volkswagen-owned production facility in the world has worker representation and a place on the VW Group Global Works Council — except for Chattanooga.
When workers in the Chattanooga Volkswagen facility first began talking about representation and the UAW, it seemed like an obvious choice. Volks- wagen believes that all its employees should have a say in how the company is run, and be able to provide input on decisions that affect them. This policy of worker representation and co-determination is central to their business model, and they credit it with much of their success as one of the top auto manufacturers in the world.
No one who works at our facility wants to have his or her voice ignored. Some of us disagree about the best way to be heard, but we all want to have a voice. We all want to be able to discuss decisions with management, and find solutions that everyone agrees on. We all want to be a part of Volkswagen’s success in Chattanooga.
A majority of the employees here at Volkswagen Chattanooga have asked to have the UAW represent us because we feel that Volkswagen Chattanooga will benefit from the partnership. The UAW has committed to establishing a Volkswagen-style Works Council here, so that we can participate in Volkswagen’s co-determination system at an international level, not just here at home.
That’s why, this week, I’ll be voting YES for the UAW — because it’s time for us to join our Volkswagen brothers and sisters around the globe, and let our voices be heard with theirs.
Justin King is a worker at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen assembly plant.