For decades, the United Auto Workers has been unable to organize a single non-union “transplant” — plants of Asian and European auto companies, most of them in the South. The game has now changed. On Dec. 4, the National Labor Relations Board announced that the UAW won the right to represent 164 skilled trades workers who repair and maintain equipment at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The vote was 108-44 for the union.
In 2014, under a barrage of anti-union scare tactics, the UAW narrowly lost an NLRB-conducted representation election. A win would have been a huge boost to the union’s efforts to organize the transplants. The loss was particularly stunning given the neutrality agreement between the UAW and VW that should have made the election an easy win.
On the eve of the February 2014 election, U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) dropped a bombshell, claiming that if the UAW won, VW would not build the next generation of SUVs in Chattanooga. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam also campaigned against the union, along with anti-union worker groups funded by right-wingers like Grover Norquist. After the negative vote, VW confirmed that Corker’s claim was a lie.
This latest win, while significant, leaves 89 percent of the hourly VW workforce — those who actually build the vehicles — outside of the collective bargaining process. Although the UAW claims a majority of VW workers as members, it has not filed for a plantwide election. Perhaps it fears it lacks enough of a majority to beat back another round of anti-union propaganda. Volkswagen recognizes the UAW as a “members-only” organization for those it signed up, but grants similar status to the American Council of Employees.
ACE is not a rival “anti-UAW union,” as it has been portrayed, but a union-busting formation funded by the same forces that promoted the “no” vote last year. In many ways ACE functions like a classic company-funded union — now illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. It differs in that it is not funded by VW itself but by elements of the capitalist class whose political agenda is to keep the U.S. South — where union density is the sparsest — a low-wage, union-free haven for corporations. Corker, Norquist and company are the political heirs of the racist Dixiecrats, who hated unions because they empower the Black working class.
What happened to VW’s ‘neutrality’?
Volkswagen shed its pretense of neutrality with this second election. The company filed an appeal with the NLRB, arguing that the union has no legal right to represent only a sector of its workforce. The company’s case is weak, especially considering a recent board ruling that a union could represent “micro-units” within a company. Consider the airline industry, where there are different unions for pilots, mechanics, flight attendants and ticket agents; at some airlines only one or two of these subgroups are organized.
It’s important to note that a drawn-out legal battle with the company would create a burden for the UAW regardless of the outcome.
The company also refused to recognize the UAW on the basis of “card check” — where a union presents proof that a majority of employees have signed union authorization cards. Moreover, VW has yet to honor an agreement it made to bargain with the UAW as a members-only union to set wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions for VW workers who are in the union. Management now seems to be of the same mind as Corker in relation to the UAW.
What has changed? For one, the UAW contracts with Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler raised wages substantially. While the contracts did not fully eliminate two-tier wages and benefits, the top pay — which for second-tier workers had been lower under the old contract than the hourly wage at VW — is now about $8 an hour more than at the Chattanooga plant. A UAW-represented workforce at VW would aspire to achieve wage parity with the Detroit Three.
The company, especially now, is in no mood to raise wages. Its current diesel emissions scandal will cost VW an estimated $10 billion in repair costs, as well as fines and legal costs. The workers, however, need a union desperately, and not just for better wages. Plant management is demanding workers be hyperproductive, and this is causing a rise in injuries and job-related stress.
Yet the UAW has not dropped its push for a German-style works council built around the class-collaborationist concept of “co-determination.” The resolution that came out of the UAW’s March Special Bargaining Convention seeks to expand the model beyond Volkswagen.
However, the UAW cannot rely on VW’s professed neutrality. Now is the time to build on the win among the skilled trades and organize the production workers.
Southern workers need the labor movement. The labor movement needs the South. Class-struggle unionism in the tradition of the 1937 Flint sit-down strike and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike is the only way forward.
Grevatt is a 28-year Chrysler worker and UAW member.