Why the far-right fears change in Chattanooga
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