These days there is very little journalism than covers labor issues. No one is talking about it. Like collective bargaining itself, news concerning labor is scarce. Tennessee workers’ rejection of the unionization of a Volkswagen plant is one of the few times we even hear about organizing workers. From a publicity point of view, this is a good thing.
Once upon a time, such was not the case. Labor leaders were well-known. People knew who Samuel Gompers and George Meany were. Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, was one of Time Magazines most influential people of the 20th century. There was plenty of racism in unions, particularly in union locals, but Reuther was a friend an staunch supporter of Martin Luther King. Reuther even co-chaired the March on Washington with A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the AFL-CIO. Today, CEO’s are lionized, and labor is marginalized. How many people even know who Richard Trumka is? Any news is good news.
The UAW is, In the words of its president Bob King, “deeply disappointed” about the result of the unionization vote at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. Workers voted 712-626 against joining the union. Much has been made about the fact that Volkswagen was not opposed to, even encouraged, the formation of the union. A majority of workers at the plant Typically, it is employers that run a campaign of misinformation and intimidation against workers, but in the case of Volkswagen, Republican politicians did the job.The lies are astounding.
Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, warned that auto part suppliers would not locate in the Chattanooga area if the plant was unionized, while Senator Bob Corker said Volkswagen executives had told him that the plant would add a new production line, making SUVs, if the workers rejected the U.A.W. In a series of interviews this week, Mr. Corker, a Republican and a former mayor of Chattanooga, asserted that a union victory would make Volkswagen less competitive and hurt workers’ living standards.
To step up the pressure, State Senator Bo Watson, who represents a suburb of Chattanooga, warned that the Republican-controlled legislature was unlikely to approve further subsidies to Volkswagen if the workers embraced the U.A.W., a threat that might discourage the company from expanding.
Volkswagen officials had urged “third parties” to remain neutral and stay out of the unionization battle. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, helped underwrite a new group, the Center for Worker Freedom, that put up 13 billboards in Chattanooga, warning that the city might become the next Detroit if the workers voted for the union.
Frank Fischer, chief executive and chairman of Volkswagen Chattanooga, rushed to respond after Mr. Corker said VW officials had told him they would expand the plant if the U.A.W. was defeated. Some legal experts said that if Volkswagen officials made such a statement, it might be construed as an illegal intimidation or inducement to pressure the workers to vote against the union.
In a statement, Mr. Fischer said, “There is no connection between our Chattanooga employees’ decision about whether to be represented by a union and the decision about where to build a new product for the U.S. market.”
Bob Corker’s lies should come as no surprise. Nor should the Norquist-funded bill boards saying “Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga,” Tennessee newspapers aided and abetted the anti-union movement.
Volkswagen wanted workers councils,which it has in Germany, but “the U.A.W. and many legal experts say it would be illegal for an American company to set up a works council without first having a union, asserting that otherwise the works council might be an illegal, employer-dominated workers group.”
The workers councils, according to “Michael Cantrell, 56, an assembly line worker… would give the workers more of a voice and help VW by fostering a smoother-running plant…. It gives them a great competitive advantage if they do this [unionize]… They have this standardized across the world. We feel we’re not as competitive if we don’t have this collaboration. This would be a paradigm shift.” Cantrell has an MBA and used to run a tax preparation business.
VW headquarters in Germany has acceded to the UAW because the company’s Global Works Council, with representatives from factories around the world, has said U.S. workers should have a plant-level works council. At present the Tennessee factory is the only major VW plant without one.
Under German law, which requires works councils in many enterprises, a council’s explicit charge is to work for the interests of both workers and company, finding non-conflictual ways of dealing with new technologies, reorganization of jobs, and plant closings. Works council members are elected by non-management employees and paid by management. (See box.)
But that job description goes against U.S. labor law, which says management may not “dominate” a labor organization nor “contribute financial or other support to it.” A works council would be legally possible under U.S. law only if the workers involved also had their own independent representative: a union.
The Volkswagen Vote is disappointing, but at least there was a vote. Without Volkswagen’s support, it’s unlikely there would have even been a vote at all. It’s also the first effort to organize the Chattanooga plant. Progress takes time and effort. The UAW won’t give up as long as there are workers that want to unionize.
The publicity of this unionization drive isn’t entirely negative either. A majority of plant workers signed cards to authorize a union vote. A large company even encouraged unionization. It is very possible that the negative propaganda tipped the vote against the UAW. Tennessee, after all, is a very red state. Workers there are more receptive to wingnut propaganda.
The Right has tipped its hand on this one, next time, we know what to expect. They won the battle, but the war goes on.