Auto Workers vs. Unions at Tennessee Volkswagen Plant

On Wednesday, workers at Volkswagen's new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee will vote on whether they wish to be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), the union that critics say brought the American auto industry to its knees. Auto manufacturing, particularly by foreign companies, has boomed across the American South as a result of right-to-work laws that have made those states more attractive than Michigan, or Europe.

Now, even Michigan has adopted right-to-work laws, and the UAW has seen its membership fall and its clout recede, despite the very generous terms of the auto bailout and its close alliance with the White House. In an effort to boost its bargaining power, it is trying--after previous failed attempts--to organize the employees of a foreign auto maker. Failure, notes the Wall Street Journal, would represent a "disaster" for the UAW.

The union has indicated to workers that it will be able to secure better wages, bonuses and benefits. Yet some doubt those promises. On the eve of the union election, which will run through Friday, a new bombshell has dropped: namely, the text of the UAW's agreement with Volkswagen. It provides that the UAW will help the company maintain "cost advantages"--which some employees interpret as meaning lower wages and benefits.

"Across the automotive industry, costs such as rubber, steel, aluminum and other materials are relatively fixed," said workers opposed to the UAW in a press release. "Unions like the UAW have no ability to affect those costs. However, the one thing they can do is affect labor costs which can make manufacturers less competitive than others." That, the anti-UAW workers charge, means the union's promise is already broken.

Workers are skeptical for other reasons. One is that the UAW is working with IG Metall, the German union that represents Volkswagen in Europe. IG Metall is opposed to the expansion of Volkswagen in the U.S., out of fear that German jobs will disappear to Tennessee and elsewhere. The same protectionist impulses that have led the UAW to oppose free trade in the U.S. are also leading the German union to oppose American jobs.

Another reason for skepticism is the dubious legal nature of promises made by the UAW to adopt a German-style "Works Council," where manufacturing workers would advise management on operations. The trouble is that the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for employers to bargain with employees once a union is recognized. At best, the "Works Council" would have input into a narrow range of issues on the shop floor.

Finally, workers know what the UAW did in Detroit and elsewhere. By insisting on high compensation--not just in wages but in the form of generous benefits--the UAW created incentives for companies to look to other countries and jurisdictions rather than staying put. Employees of Volkwagen in Tennessee know that the non-unionized workforce was a major draw for the company. They are reluctant to tamper with a winning formula.

There are also some workers who look forward to being represented by a union, believing that the UAW can bring stability and clout. Yet the sheer intensity of the anti-UAW campaign means that this week's election may be tilting against the union. If nothing else, this week's election will be a barometer of the outlook of the "middle class" that both political parties claim to represent, and that both are courting ahead of the 2014 vote.

Photo: AP/Erik Schelzig


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