Opinion

The Great Debate

Why the far-right fears change in Chattanooga

By John Logan
February 11, 2014

On Wednesday through Friday, 1500 autoworkers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee will vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers union in a landmark National Labor Relations Board election. Like other U.S. outposts of foreign auto companies, the facility, which opened in 2011, has never had a union.

A vote for unionization at Volkswagen would be a historic victory — not only for the UAW, but for the entire labor movement. It would provide unions with a key victory in the South, even in the face of a lavishly-funded external anti-union campaign, and may lead to transformative changes in labor-management relations, especially among European-owned firms.

If the Chattanooga workers vote to unionize, they will provide another example that when companies remain neutral in union elections, employees usually choose unions. Instead of pressuring the employees to vote against the UAW, Volkswagen management has let workers make the choice on their own. This is exactly what should happen in union elections, but rarely does. Volkswagen would probably have recognized the union on the basis of documented interest among workers, but Republican politicians and anti-union groups such as the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) demanded that the company hold an NLRB election. Ironically, the NRTWC has insisted that Volkswagen provide employees who oppose the UAW with an opportunity to make their case to the workforce, something that pro-union workers never enjoy during standard U.S. anti-union campaigns.

Unionized workers at the Chattanooga plant would almost certainly get the first works council in the United States — a type of organization that deals with issues of employee welfare and management, such as flexibility in work schedules. Works councils, which operate at the plant level, have long been a key aspect of employment relations in many European countries. Currently, every one of Volkswagen’s 61 major production facilities outside of China has both a union and a works council, except for the Tennessee plant. A successful works council at Volkswagen may lead to other corporations adopting this innovative (for the U.S.) form of worker representation.

A vote for unionization would provide the UAW with a key victory in the “foreign auto transplants” — the U.S. plants of European and Asian auto manufacturers, most of which are located in southern right-to-work states. The UAW has encountered robust opposition when it has attempted to organize in these facilities. Nissan is currently resisting efforts by autoworkers in Canton, Mississippi to form a union. The company is also fighting pro-union workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, where it defeated organizing campaigns in 1989 and 2001, after it allegedly threatened job losses, plant closings, relocation to Mexico, and a loss of wages and benefits if the union prevailed. The UAW has organized in several U.S.-Japanese joint auto ventures, but not in any wholly-owned foreign automakers.

This time around, domestic and international allies have supported the struggles of U.S. autoworkers. The fact that Volkswagen is allowing its workers a free and un-coerced choice on unionization is in part because of support from the two million-member IG Metall, Germany’s largest union. Nissan workers have received support from unions in Brazil, South Africa, Japan, England and Australia. Civil rights, faith and environmental organizations have also assisted their efforts. If Volkswagen goes union, Nissan, Mercedes and other foreign auto transplants may soon follow suit.

A victory at Volkswagen would signal that the anti-union South — where elected officials have frequently joined with the business community and right-wing organizations to stop workers from organizing — might not be so solid in future years. Unions have enjoyed some important recent victories, especially among predominantly Latino workforces, such as the Service Employees International Union’s janitors’ campaign in Houston, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s historic victory at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina. Union membership in the South is well below the national average of 11.3 percent, but in 2012, Tennessee had the biggest percentage growth in union membership of any U.S. state, with Georgia and Alabama not far behind.

Most importantly, a UAW victory would show that even billionaire anti-union zealots can be beaten. Right-wing groups are furious that Volkswagen is not fighting the UAW, so they have chosen to do so on their own. National organizations funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers and other right-wing activists have taken to the airwaves to demonize the UAW. State politicians have attempted to blackmail autoworkers to vote no by stating that Volkswagen may lose state financial support if it becomes unionized. Unionization, one elected official explained, “was not part of the deal.”

In their effort to whip up anti-union fervor, UAW opponents have called it the “vilest of cancers,” “Ichneumon wasp larvae,” and “black shirted thugs.” If Volkswagen workers resist this blatant attempt at intimidation by anti-union organizations, they will make clear beyond a doubt that they want UAW representation. They will have rejected the insidious lies about “Big Labor” — and the depiction of unions as narrow and self-serving — that the Koch Brothers and others have been peddling for far too long. And they will have participated in a historic union victory.

PHOTOS: A United Auto Workers union member wears a shirt with ‘UAW United We Stand’ on it during a ceremony where members of UAW Local 600 unfurled a banner to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the historic “Battle of the OverPass” in Dearborn, Michigan May 25, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook 

Labourers work on the assembly line of the Volkswagen Kombi at the Volkswagen plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker 

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

When I buy a product I look for one that is union made.

Union workers are always more skilled and satisfied with their job. One can always tell the difference between a non-union carpenter and a union carpenter in the miter cut and the joint is tight. In addition to company training, unions have their own training that demands a higher level of skill and the peer pressure is greater.

Unions also cooperate with the company in maximizing efficiencies and productivities when times are good.

They also cooperate with the company in reducing hours to avoid layoffs of skilled workers when times are not good.

Unions and companies working together provide benefits that maximize family time and values.

Family values use to be a republican and conservative core value. It no Longer is.

Crony capitalism and plutocracy are now only the conservative core values. Family values, personal responsibility, work place health and safety, and quality of life issues are being sacrificed by republicans and conservatives for excessive greed.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive
 

First off if the American managers treated workers half as good as the German managers the UAW would not have had a hope in getting here. But these Toyota rejects think they are kings and people are fed up. If these out of town GOP funded hate groups had not told so many lies they may have been able to fool more of the workers, but people are seeing the anti side for what it is. And a big thank you to Bob Corker for running his mouth so much. People know that he is a POS politician and as soon as he started spreading lies and hate numerous people made up their mind and decided they were pro UAW. Thanks Bob!!

Posted by RedhookTN | Report as abusive
 

I understand why the Koch brothers would fight the union and other things like minimum wage. For them, even though they are extremely wealthy already, there is more money needed for them to make up for what they lack in humanity. However, I don’t understand the minions of the right. There is simply nothing that benefits them by denying a good wage to people. Perhaps it’s simply loyalty to their masters as they are prideful of being good little soldiers or, perhaps it’s that they need someone making less than them, or preferably poor, so they can feel better about themselves. It’s pretty obvious by their rankor and bitterness that they unhappy with their live, so maybe having other people lives suck even worse brings them joy in their pitiful and bitter existence.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

Why the right wing fears unions… I think there was a time and place for Unions. But I think they have gone way to far in the manupulation of Politics, and have become the destroyer of industries… Why is it Every Airline has filed Bankruptcy, Why did every Automaker in America struggle and either need a bailout or to be bought. Heavy Union Industries. And don’t kid yourself, Unions are not in it for “all the people”. They are in it for themselves. GM is a great example, in their bailout/bakruptcy they ignored all existiting Bankruptcy laws, to protect the UAW, screw the Teacher and Police Unions of Indiana who were heavily invested through their pension fund. Which I guess is OK with the UAW, but sort of sticks in the Crawl of the teachers in Indiana. Union leaders today are mobsters with a better title, acting of under the guise of proctecting their workers but in the long run hurting everybody.

Posted by justaname | Report as abusive
 

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