Last Friday the workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted against joining the UAW. In the weeks and months leading up to this vote, VW had agreed to stay neutral and over half the workers had indicated they were in favor of union membership. But that all changed due to a sustained propaganda campaign lead by Bob Corker the notorious anti-union Senator from Tennessee and the Koch brothers. They, and their right wing allies, believe that if Tennessee – a right-to-work (for less) state – opens the door to the union, the rest of the South will open up to labor.
Other threats were lobbed – Senator Corker claimed to have been told by an unnamed top company executive that a vote against the union would guarantee that Chattanooga would be chosen as the production site for a new line of SUVs — the union denied it. State officials apparently said if the plant were unionized, the legislature would refuse to appropriate an estimated $700 million in state subsidies necessary to build out an SUV plant.
I don’t understand why these Southern politicians are so threatened by the union. European companies, like VW, which stayed neutral in this discussion, are used to the notion of workers and employers having a place at the table; they support the concept of worker representatives sitting down with management and arriving at mutually beneficial policies, including work rules, wages, safety and health requirements, and vacation benefits. Everyone understands that there’s money to be made – a lot of it – by both workers and industry. What is so infuriating about so many American businesses, and this campaign against UAW so demonstrates this problem, is that they don’t get that sharing the wealth is GOOD for companies and workers. So many American companies are all about grabbing profits for their higher ups and skimping on wages and benefits whenever possible. Here was a chance to change that paradigm with the company’s support.
But because this is the US, that wasn’t to be.
The anti UAW propaganda was effective, comparing Tennessee to Detroit and scaring the current VW workforce, which currently makes a good salary, by blaming the UAW for Detroit’s current financial disaster. Talk about blaming the victim! Workers making decent wages and benefits are to blame for Detroit’s decades of mismanagement and white flight? It makes no sense but it’s a potent sound bite.
Suppliers threatened to boycott TN if VW unionized. Is giving workers a voice really so scary? Yes, to Southern politicians and business. But Steve Pearlstein in the Washington Post points out that:
[I]n the faster-growing and more prosperous regional economies of the North and West, companies are trying to boost performance by increasing employee engagement and empowerment, not suppressing it. Their business strategies are based not on assuring a steady supply of cheap labor but on increasing the number of highly paid and highly skilled workers. Rather than trying to nullify federal labor law and crush what remains of the much-diminished union movement, these companies, like VW, are looking at new models of workplace cooperation and collaboration.
That’s more likely the wave of the future. And the South, and Senator Corker, the Koch’s, and their ilk – will be left behind If they continue this all out attack against empowering workers and giving them a voice.