No one is more aware of this than the UAW, which hopes a victory in Chattanooga will finally give it a foothold for expansion in the South's foreign-owned auto plants after three decades of struggles to organize their workers.
A loss, however, would be devastating, given that VW has all but invited the UAW into the Chattanooga plant to help create a German-style labor council that would give workers a say in corporate decisions about new products and manufacturing sites.
"If they don't get this one, then there's no hope for them anytime soon to have any success with BMW or Daimler," says Steve Silvia, a professor at American University who recently wrote a book on German labor relations. "And the Japanese and Korean plants are reaches even beyond the German plants."
The political stakes are high, too. Well-funded political groups have descended on Chattanooga over the past week with election-year vigor, airing ads on drive-time radio and posting billboards that blame the UAW for Detroit's blight. GOP politicians in Tennessee are warning that unionization will hurt the state's economy.
A weak union presence has played a major role in pulling the U.S. auto industry's center of gravity toward Southern states such as Tennessee, which had 48,500 automotive jobs in 2012, according to a Brookings Institution report.
"It goes without saying that other Southern auto manufacturers are watching," says Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga attorney who worked with VW several years ago and now advises an anti-UAW group. "This vote will have huge ramifications."
Tennessee has been here before. Starting in the late 1980s, union halls and human resources managers had their eyes on the town of Spring Hill, where General Motors opened the first plant for Saturn with an innovative labor deal similar to those employed in Germany.
Spring Hill workers sat on committees that made Saturn's key decisions, says Mike Bennett, who led the UAW's Spring Hill local from its founding in 1986 until 1999. Their pay was based on Saturn sales.
But after new union leaders took over in 1999, Bennett says, labor relations at Spring Hill reverted to a more confrontational style. A decade later, the plant was on the chopping block amid GM's bankruptcy but was spared after UAW lobbying. Bennett, now retired, says the situation would never have gotten so dire if the original labor plan had been kept.
"Had they done a better job of implementing the lessons that we learned here in Spring Hill in the '90s, we wouldn't have faced the bankruptcy 10 years later," says Bennett, who still lives in town.
UAW President Bob King disputes this retelling. He says many collaborative practices pioneered at Saturn were widely adopted by the UAW.
But to Bennett, the real test of what the union learned will come in Chattanooga. "Bob King has been saying for years that the UAW is a different union now," he said. "Volkswagen is going to be an opportunity to prove it."
Not everyone in Tennessee is inclined to wait and see. Among the skeptics is Gov. Bill Haslam, who says a unionized VW plant would make it harder to expand the auto industry's presence in Tennessee. "When we recruit other companies, that comes up every time," Haslam told the Nashville Tennessean editorial board last week.