“These Hands”: Artist Depicts the Workers’ Struggle at Recently Unionized Volkswagen Plant

Last week, a spark caught ablaze at Volkswagen’s Tennessee plant as workers voted to unionize. This victory comes after months of agitation by United Auto Worker (UAW) organizers, as well as retaliatory attacks on such activity by Volkswagen. A local artist, Tabitha Arnold, created a tapestry that visually shows how the workers fanned the flame and ignited a fire within the plant.

Tabitha wrote about the thought process behind the masterpiece that took her 224 hours and 15 minutes to make. Before weaving a single thread, she watched hours of footage about the automobile assembly process to learn about the types of tools workers use, the way they move on the job, and how they work together. She also watched UAW propaganda materials, which feature chants of “our hands, our backs, our knees, our work,” which inspired the words featured on the tapestry.

Regarding this aspect of the piece, Tabitha writes “This quote speaks to the physical toll of labor on the body. As many auto workers report, chronic injuries are rampant in the industry… Volkswagen workers put their body on the line when they clock in every day. I see this as a form of martyrdom; something I often refer to in my artwork, because I’m fascinated by the convictions—or the necessities—that drive people to take on serious risks to their bodies and lives. People will martyr their bodies for work, if they’re desperate enough for the pay.”

Tabitha’s piece also demonstrates the level of coordination and organization required to produce automobiles and connects it to the power that workers hold when they do come together to struggle. The tapestry showcases just how socialized production is, which stands in sharp contrast to the appropriation of wealth by the capitalist class.

“These Hands” with Volkswagen workers and community members at IBEW Local 175.

Tabitha writes: “Volkswagen is a massive plant with over 4,300 employees, and the assembly line is segmented in a way that many staff don’t get to know their coworkers in other units. As a car moves through the line, many hands touch it; belonging to people who have never met, but whose labor comes together to build something bigger than the sum of its parts. There is something profound about this connection between you and somebody you don’t know.”

Tabitha unveiled her art at a community rally for the Volkswagen workers before the vote. She writes about how nervous she was about how she and the art would be received, wondering if she would be seen as an opportunistic artist. Instead, workers took pictures with the piece and inquired in awe how long it took her to put it together. In that sense, the workers and Tabitha both saw just how much power they have in “these hands.”

A.M.

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