Unionizing offers workers group strength that can mean labor contracts, due process, and a vote on their leaders.
Rejecting the choice offers “employment at will” (of management) and a system as feudal as the antebellum South.
But for centuries the South maintained its system of race slavery and wage slavery through threats and fear, and those were used again Feb. 12-14, when workers at VW’s three-year-old Chattanooga factory lost their attempt to unionize. It was workers’ most successful organizing drive at an auto plant in the South, but they narrowly lost, with a 44-vote swing out of 1,336 ballots.
The United Auto Workers on Feb. 21 filed an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board claiming that outside interference created an illegal Unfair Labor Practice.
The election certainly seemed to pit people who live and work in Chattanooga and want to affiliate with the UAW vs. out-of-state billionaires, political opportunists and national anti-union groups. Wealthy outside interests conducted a campaign of lies and threats to influence the outcome, the UAW says.
They mention State Sen. Bo Watson, the Republican legislative leader, threatening that his bloc would withhold “any additional incentives” from VW for expansion. The state previously granted Volkswagen $577 million in incentives, but he said future consideration would “have a very tough time” in the Senate, which is controlled by the GOP. The union also noted that Tennessee Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said, “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that, should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here.” (VW denied that.)
The anti-union forces’ coordinated media attack – funded by or involving the notorious Koch brothers, Right-winger Grover Norquist, and the National Right To Work Committee – included 13 billboards and many radio commercials exaggerating or lying, even claiming that the UAW would take away people’s guns!
Without such unprecedented tactics, workers would have won union recognition, according to Professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California at Berkeley, who told the Associated Press, “You’ve got family members [who] hear these threats and they say, ‘This is a risk’.”
For decades, federal law has stated that it’s government policy to “encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and to protect the exercise by workers of full freedom of association.” Therefore, union-representation elections are supposed to be fair and democratic, conducted under conditions that permit workers to make a free choice, and it’s illegal to threaten, intimidate or interfere with a vote (although some employers do since there’s little enforcement or punishment for breaking the law).
But the law is largely silent about third-party involvement. Volkswagen stayed neutral in the vote but supports the formation of works councils, which in the United States requires a collective bargaining agreement. Works councils exist, by law, at all German VW plants (which pay more than what Volkswagen’s American workers earn). The works councils in Germany facilitate collaboration that leads to better production and more profits.
U.S. corporations work collectively in trade groups and other associations, from the National Manufacturers Association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but when it comes to such collaboration, much less everyday people working together, Big Business and its elected mouthpieces oppose it.
The UAW’s appeal says, “The clear message of the campaign was that voting for the union would result in stagnation for the Chattanooga plant, with no new product, no job security, and withholding of state support for its expansion.”
Criticizing elected officials and anti-union bankrolls, the AFL-CIO said, “We do not yet know the full scope of their misconduct. Working people are determined that the facts will come out and that there will be complete accountability for their attack on Volkswagen workers’ rights. This was not an example of politicians expressing their opinions. These were … threats by the powerful designed to interfere with the free exercise of workers’ right to vote.”
The results could have far-reaching consequences. Bernd Osterloh, head of Volkswagen’s main works council in Germany, told journalist Rana Foroohar, “Another VW factory in the United States – provided that one more should still be set up there – does not necessarily have to be assigned to the South.”
Further, if such outside meddling is pronounced permissible, it could usher in a new tactic for anti-union forces with millions to spend to defeat workers trying to organize. After investigating, the NLRB could determine whether a new election for VW workers is needed.
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.