Opinion

The Great Debate

The college football assembly line

Here’s a tale of two factories and the way the public feels about those who labor there. Nothing could be more iconic than an automobile factory where workers put in eight or more hours a day on the assembly line. The work is boring, the pace unrelenting and injuries are not uncommon, but the pay is better than working in fast food or at Wal-Mart. Volkswagen’s modern, efficient Chattanooga factory is such a place.

Then there are the “football factories.” A good one is at Northwestern University, where players are formally enrolled as students, but they spend the bulk of their time in practice for several months of the year. Their tuition and living expenses are paid through an athletic scholarship, the value of which is often more than an autoworker earns in a year. At Northwestern, 97 percent of these players are said to graduate.

In both these factories the workers are trying to unionize. Northwestern has been in the news because a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that though football players are labeled as students, they actually spend most of their time as de facto employees under the boss-like supervision of well-compensated sports professionals.

This decision, certain to be appealed, has won much applause, even among sports columnists and other commentators not previously known for pro-union sentiments.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, an effort by the United Auto Workers to win a NLRB representation election at VW was defeated amidst a barrage of anti-union invective by many of the most influential state officeholders as well as powerful conservative lobby groups.

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.

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