Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ruth Milkman

Committee Members

Charles Post

Stephanie Luce

Subject Categories

Work, Economy and Organizations


Volkswagen, United Auto Workers, Chattanooga


Declining unionization rates in the private sector have long been a major object of research across the social sciences and among students of the labor movement. Nowhere is this issue felt more acutely than in core productive sectors of the American South, where employers have beaten back nearly every significant organizing effort, even as the region continues to attract mass industry. These problems are epitomized by the United Autoworkers Workers’ 2014 defeat at the hands of German automaker Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it failed to win an election despite management’s ostensible neutrality. Though various competing explanations have been offered, I attribute the UAW’s underwhelming performance principally to the union’s own mistakes and shortcomings. Drawing upon extensive ethnographic data, and applying an analytical framework first proposed by Marshall Ganz, I argue that on three key measures of organizational performance -- access to information, strategic capacity, and ongoing learning -- the UAW fell short, ultimately sealing its fate. First, the UAW neglected to draw important lessons from its previous efforts to organize foreign-owned automakers, which often bore an uncanny resemblance to Volkswagen. Second, the UAW did not deploy its resources effectively, all but disregarding the widely held “best practices” and often displaying a more fundamental ineptitude. Finally, while successful unions adapt to changing conditions, the UAW suffered from path dependency, refusing to make necessary corrections when its pre-ordained strategy sent it veering off-course. This findings suggest, contra the dominant narrative, that the UAW bears some responsbiliy for its own organizing failures, with profound implications for the future of unions in the American South and beyond.

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