Attempts to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN are meeting fierce retaliation from anti-union forces inside the beltway.
VW officials have expressed interest in unionization ahead of expansions at their East Tennessee facility. The United Auto Workers (UAW) are working with VW to create a union model that closely resembles successful Germany efforts, where management and workers come together to meet common goals. In a recent interview with AutoNews, UAW President Bob King discussed how this kind of system could help give workers a stronger voice:
What we can tell you is: we’re eager to form a representation model built on collaboration and cooperation that’s consistent with the VW culture and philosophy.
VW officials at the plant have openly discussed unionization and a healthy relationship seems to have spawned from that. Yet, anti-union politicians are painting unionization as a death stroke for Tennessee workers. These tactics have ramped up in lockstep with encouraging signs from the labor talks.
For more than a year, leaders with UAW have been eyeing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, and in March, reports surfaced that the organization had talked with Volkswagen AG executives about a German-style labor board at the local plant.
But since the discussions about if and how to unionize have surfaced, not everyone has supported the idea.
In April, leaders of a national right-to-work group said they were worried that United Auto Workers officials were pressuring Volkswagen to “cut backroom deals” that would force unwilling employees into the union ranks.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a nonprofit organization aimed at eliminating “coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information and education programs,” according to the group’s website.
The group said they would offer free legal aid to workers who felt pressured.
At the end of May, a brochure made the rounds at Volkswagen. It had messages from Volkswagen employees who support union representation and from leaders of the German union IG Metall, who are encouraging local workers to organize.
Now, Washington insiders fighting on behalf of the right-wing are filling the region with anti-union propaganda and looking to recruit Tea Party members to pass it out.
Matt Patterson, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center For Economic Freedom, said his group has put up a billboard on Highway 153, just a few miles from the VW plant, to help get its message across about the dangers of unions and the UAW.
The billboard depicts a rundown former Detroit, Mich., auto plant and states “Auto unions ATE Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga?”
Plans are to begin efforts to educate business leaders, politicians and citizens “about the history, tactics and legacy of this powerful union,” according to a website, WorkplaceChoice.org, sponsored by the group.
Patterson said he’s talking with local tea party activists to discuss strategy in terms of distributing materials such as pamphlets.
Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said he will talk with Patterson, and generally he favors what the group is doing.”We’d generally resist unionizing a plant,” he said. “We’ve seen what happened with unions across the country, specifically Detroit.”
In response, the UAW is trying to educate plant workers about what German style labor boards could mean. It is rare for an American employer, let alone one operating in Tennessee, to explicitly seek unionization. VW is doing just that before deciding how much more embedded in the area they want to get. Lowell Turner, a Cornell University international and comparative labor professor, explained VW’s rationale to the Times Free Press:
“We’d like to see representation [in Chattanooga] and for it to happen before we look at expansion there.”
“If we can expand somewhere else with a more friendly environment, why expand in a place that’s hostile to unions and worker representation,” Turner said he thought was the message.
Last week, VW Group deputy works council chief Stephan Wolf threatened to block expansion in Chattanooga unless a similar labor panel is put into place at the factory.
But in Tennessee, jobs apparently aren’t a good enough reason to shirk ideology. Gov. Bill Haslam says he is wary of what unionization at VW would mean to other industries across the state. He must mean that the precedent of actually treating workers fairly would be set and thus undermine Tennessee’s sterling image as a bastion of anti-worker policies.
The alternative for VW is to move their operation to Mexico. This would be bittersweet for pro-unionists as Haslam and his anti-union lot in Washington would effectively become accomplices to outsourcing. They care little, though, I’m sure. This is American politics: Jobs can easily be created and workers can have their voices strengthened, but a few billionaires are willing to spend a couple bucks to throw it all away.