For three days, June 12-14, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted whether to allow the United Auto Workers union to represent them. The union narrowly lost the election, 833 to 776. Over 90 percent of the plant’s 1,700-plus workers voted.
Compared to the first plantwide vote in 2014, which was 712 to 626 against the union, the UAW inched closer to securing a win.
The need for union representation is glaring. Workers’ No. 1 complaint is the high rate of injuries at the plant, caused by line speedups and trying to get more work out of fewer workers. Repetitive motion injuries are commonplace, and injured workers are routinely put back on the same job that caused their injury.
Another big issue is last-minute shift changes and overtime scheduling that make it hard for workers and their families to plan their lives. The company was not going to address these or other issues on its own as a matter of conscience.
Volkswagen, which during the 2014 vote feigned neutrality, now wants to keep Chattanooga union-free. For four years after the National Labor Relations Board certified that the UAW had won an election covering 160 skilled maintenance workers at the plant, Volkswagen refused to bargain. Yet VW argued to the NLRB that an election involving all the plant’s hourly workers could not go forward because of the smaller unit’s vote.
The NLRB bought VW’s frivolous argument and denied the UAW’s petition to hold an election in late April. This would have been shocking, except for the fact that, with four of five board members appointed by Trump, anti-labor rulings have become routine. After the union filed a new petition, the June election was set.
Delays bought union busters time
The UAW took signed authorization cards from a majority of the VW hourly workers when it went to the NLRB in April. Why the loss?
Delaying the election gave VW and other anti-union forces nine weeks to mislead and frighten the workers into rejecting the union. There were constant ads on TV, radio and billboards appealing to prejudice and warning of “domination” by the Detroit-based union. Management gave out free T-shirts that read, “One Team: I am Volkswagen.”
Workers were required to attend company-run morning meetings where speeches and leaflets conveyed a one-sided message. Workers were harassed for wearing union stickers or passing out union literature. VW CEO Frank Fischer himself addressed the workers; he claimed a vote for the union could cause the plant to close.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee addressed one meeting, emphasizing his negative view of unions. The state had given VW over half a million dollars worth of tax breaks to lure the company to Tennessee. Governor Lee and other politicians implied that voting union could trigger a loss of incentives. Without the incentives, politicians suggested Volkswagen would cancel expansion plans to build a new electric vehicle in Chattanooga.
To court workers, the company also made some improvements — which they could have made all along — including cooling the plant, more desirable schedules and ouster of unpopular managers.
The monumental level of propagandizing and fearmongering over more than two months was enough to tip the scales in the company’s favor.
How can the UAW win?
Asian and European auto companies have over 30 plants in the U.S., almost all in Southern states and all non-union. Nissan defeated a union drive in Canton, Miss., in 2017 by using scare tactics similar to VW’s. A victory at VW could have launched a massive organizing drive at the other foreign-owned transplants — which would in turn boost organizing across the South.
The UAW is demanding changes in the labor laws that allow corporate intimidation to take place. “Over a period of nine weeks — an unprecedented length of time due to legal gamesmanship — Volkswagen was able to break the will of enough workers to destroy their majority,” said UAW Organizing Director Tracy Romero. (UAW.org)
The VW vote exposes the fraudulent character of “democracy” under capitalism. There is no real right to organize if companies can threaten to close plants or fire workers for organizing.
Some workers, however, claimed they weren’t against having a union, they were just against the UAW. These may be face-saving claims, but they could be an honest reaction to real problems inside the UAW.
So far nine people — UAW Chrysler Department officials and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executives — have been convicted in a bribery scandal, with more under investigation. FCA gave lavish amounts of money to UAW leaders, allegedly to get them to sell members an inferior contract in 2015.
This outrageous corruption is an outgrowth of the long-standing orientation of the International UAW leadership toward “partnership” with company management. For decades, concessions have been peddled to the rank and file to keep corporations “competitive” or “profitable.”
The loss at VW — with wages that are the lowest among the transplants — takes place as the UAW begins negotiations for new contracts with Ford, General Motors and FCA. The Detroit Three will use lower transplant wages as ammunition, arguing that higher labor costs make them less competitive.
But now that the Detroit auto companies are making billions in record profits, the leaders are feeling a push from below. The rank and file want to reverse concessions and get rid of tiered wages — a divisive scheme where newer workers doing the same job as higher-seniority workers make less pay. Current contracts have new hires classified as temporary. They have few rights, can be fired with little recourse, and their pay is actually lower than that of VW production workers.
It may well take a strike to make real headway. For the UAW to be attractive to potential members, as well as hold on to current members as more states become “right-to-work-for-less,” the union must break up its partnership with capital.
It’s time to revive the fighting spirit of the 1936-37 sit-down strikes!