CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (PAI) – Amid a heavy anti-union campaign by outside radical right groups and Tennessee Republican politicians – but not the company – some 1,500 workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant are voting from Feb. 12-14 on whether to unionize with the United Auto Workers.
If the union wins, the victory would make VW the UAW’s second plant in the Volunteer State, but its first successful organizing drive in years in the anti-union South. It also would be the UAW’s first win at a “transplant” foreign automaker in that region, union Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams said earlier in February.
A Tennessee win would also embolden workers whom the union is trying to organize at other “transplants.” They include a Nissan plant in Mississippi and a Honda plant in Alabama.
One worker at Alabama’s Honda plant told the Volkswagen Workers United blog: “Way to stand, Volkswagen. We’re waiting on a campaign to get going down here in Lincoln, Ala. Honda, we’re sick and tired of getting pushed around!!!”
Campaigning was intense in the run-up to the election, with pro-UAW workers, from Tennessee, from other UAW locals and from other unions in the U.S. urging their Chattanooga colleagues to vote in the Auto Workers as their bargaining representative.
VW itself stayed neutral.
And if the UAW wins, the local there would be unique, as it would sit on a joint “works council” with management to hash out problems at the plant, such as overtime rights and health and safety issues, before they fester. Workers councils exist, by law, at all German VW plants.
“We’ll set up a closer relationship between management and labor” at the Chattanooga plant via the council, UAW president Bob King told a recent interviewer. Both realize “the best way for workers to get good wages and benefits is for the company to be successful.”
And VW has a master “workers council” which meets top management in Germany on company-wide issues. That council includes worker reps from every other VW plant worldwide. They’re all unionized under relevant national laws – except Chattanooga.
“VW and UAW sat down and made an agreement to have a fair election,” Williams told UAW’s legislative-political conference on Feb. 5. “It’s one where the employees would not be intimidated, and their decision would be treated with respect.”
Outside right wing groups and Tennessee Republicans, however, are unhappy about the coperation between the UAW and Volkswagen. Two radical right groups,,the National Right to Work Committee and the so-called Americans for Tax Reform, bought billboards and ran ad campaigns denouncing the union.
Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Tenn., said unionization could hurt Tennessee’s prospects for attracting other big businesses. Bo Watson, the GOP state senator representing Chattanooga, declared that “any additional incentives” for the plant’s expansion “will have a very tough time” in the state senate. The GOP controls the state senate, 26-7.
That pressure appeared not to deter the VW workers, the union, or their allies elsewhere in the labor movement, the blog shows.
“All VW employees should ask themselves ‘Why are all the politicians telling you to vote no UAW?'” Willie Hammontree replied on the VW Workers United blog. “Who is paying for the billboards? Their only reason for fighting the UAW is so they can hold down wages at other plants.”
And even VW hit back against the outside interference, the Chattanoogan reported, via the blog. “Volkswagen Chattanooga management said Saturday that ‘outside political groups’ would not divert VW in connection with the upcoming controversial employee vote on whether the plant will be unionized,” the item read.
Photo: Workers assemble Volkswagen Passats at the automaker’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The plant could unionize. Erik Schelzig/AP