UAW Breaking Through in Transplants in Chattanooga

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VW-Chattanooga-plantNew Orleans   The Volkswagen company filed with the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a quick election among its 1600 workers in Chattanooga to determine whether or not the United Automobile Workers (UAW) should represent workers at the plant.  The UAW has confidently indicated that it has majority support among the workers based on the number that signed authorization cards asking for an election.  The company has been neutral in the campaign, and in a very rare step in union organizing has allowed the union access inside the plant to campaign among the workers.  Though the election is several weeks away, I’m calling this now for the UAW, as a critical victory for the union and for workers everywhere, especially in the South.

            Obviously, the Germany-based, Volkswagen is a well-known auto company, selling cars here for decades, but with this plant and a UAW victory, this will be the first foreign auto production company, or transplant as the union calls them, successfully unionized anywhere in the country.  Tennessee, northern Alabama, and parts of Mississippi have become the “new Detroit” for foreign auto manufacturers in recent years partially thanks to generous state tax incentives and subsidies, which added up to more than a quarter billion in Tennessee for example, and highly calculated union avoidance strategies, often making them high wage employers for their areas and committed anti-union environments.  In fact the main opposition to the UAW’s organizing seems to have come from non-workers, chambers of commerce, right-to-work committees, the Koch brothers, and the usual suspects with an in-plant committee hawking their position.

            Transplant organizing drives and elections have been painful for the UAW for years, but Bob King, UAW’s president and former organizing director, and his organizing staff, seem to have played this plant perfectly by going global.  From earlier reports the union has spent significant time in Germany appealing to Volkswagen’s union representatives, who thanks to Germany’s labor world, actually have seats on the board of the company and have been clear that they don’t want the Tennessee plant to be part of the race to the bottom for any workers. 

The company want a works council, which is the dominant, labor-management participation scheme in Germany in the United States, and to have one in the United States given U.S. labor law requires an election.  Without one it’s a section 2 violation for creating a company dominated representation process or in plain language without an election, Volkswagen would be creating a company union through its works council. 

Part of this is simply spin though.  The UAW worked the organizing strategy inside-out in Germany and outside-in in Tennessee in winning a majority.  Every organizer’s experience and countless academic studies have established that if the employer not only doesn’t oppose the union, but indicates support for worker representation, that matches perfectly with the majority of workers’ desires for representation as regular polling continues to establish even in these hard times for unions.  All of this adds up to an overwhelming victory for the UAW.  I’m not sure it will be equivalent to Seattle beating Denver, but this is one where the UAW will walk away with a trophy they have been seeking for decades.