Worker Freedom in Tennessee

vw_uaw2Major employers facing a union organizing drive, particularly in the South, have long relied on small-business owners, elected officials and other conservative voices to mount a counter-attack.

An interesting variation on this theme is taking place in Tennessee, where Volkswagen seems to be welcoming a United Auto Workers organizing effort at its plant in Chattanooga, yet local as well as national anti-union ideologues are on the warpath nonetheless. They are frantically trying to persuade VW workers to reject the union in a secret-ballot vote scheduled later this month. The company reportedly decided not to simply recognize the UAW, which has gotten a majority of the workers to sign membership cards, because of intense pressure from figures such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who gained notoriety for opposing the federal rescue of the auto industry.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the United Auto Workers via the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981.)

VW has rejected the usual practice of foreign automakers, which despite any cooperative relationships with unions at home, have embraced American-style anti-union animus in their U.S. transplants. For many years, the UAW has sought to overcome this intransigence, as seen most recently in the ongoing effort to organize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

VW wants to import the works council system of labor-management relations it has in Germany, but in the absence of a certified collective bargaining representative, that would amount to an illegal company-dominated union under U.S. labor law.

We thus end up with a situation in which a major corporation wanting to employ a set of practices designed to improve productivity and reduce turnover is being vilified by those who regard union avoidance as one of the grand traditions of the South.

Last month, Stephen Moore, who was recently named chief economist of the Heritage Foundation, told a business meeting in Chattanooga that the union effort at VW is “like inserting a cancer cell into a body. That one cancer cell is going to multiply and kill the body.” Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is helping to bankroll the opposition, apparently out of a concern that a union advance in Tennessee would impede his fiscal agenda. The National Right to Work Foundation and the Center for Worker Freedom are also involved, though their efforts fell flat when the National Labor Relations Board concluded that neither the UAW nor VW had violated labor law in any way.

Figures such as Moore and Norquist came into prominence as a result of a conservative backlash that big business set into motion three decades ago in response to advances of the labor, environmental and consumer movements. That Frankenstein monster took on a life of its own, and now rightwing groups pursue purist goals even when they conflict with corporate pragmatism — as seen, for example in the tea party push for a government shutdown over the objection of major companies.

These groups operate on the assumption that Americans are inherently conservative and that organizations such as the UAW will lead them astray. Foreign automakers such as Nissan and Toyota have gone along with this notion.

VW seems to have a different view, but for reasons that are generally not acknowledged. It tends to be forgotten that VW was the first foreign automaker to establish an assembly plant in the United States, back in 1978 in Pennsylvania.

After being welcomed by public officials with a subsidy package worth about $100 million — an astounding sum at the time — Volkswagen found that many of the people it hired were unhappy about being paid less than their counterparts at the ┬áBig Three plants. A wildcat strike ensued, catching even the UAW off guard. Stopping production of VW’s Rabbit, the workers chanted “No Money, No Bunny.” The plant, which never recovered from the worker unrest, shut down in 1988.

As opposed to the rightwing caricature of unions as the shock troops for a socialist takeover, VW regards the UAW as a partner that can help ensure the smooth functioning of the plant. If that’s done by giving workers more control over their working life, so much the better.

After years of being at the totally at the mercy of management, Southern autoworkers finally have a chance to play a greater role in controlling their destiny. That’s real worker freedom.

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