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An effort to organize Volkswagen workers in Tennessee was hailed as a potential breakthrough for organized labor in the South. But workers at the plant in Chattanooga voted to reject the plan last week, opening up questions about whether unions will ever find a toe hold in states that are attracting an increasing amount of blue collar jobs. We explore where the labor movement is headed from here, including in so-called “right-to-work” states in our region.
- Stephen Silvia Professor, American University
- Mike Elk Writer, In These Times
MS. JEN GOLDBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Goldbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up later this hour, DC Water's massive tunnel-building project is designed to keep raw sewage out of the rivers. But they're proposing to forego some tunneling in favor of Green architecture.
MS. JEN GOLDBECKBut, first, in a crowded Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., a retired judge announced a vote that could decide the future of the United Auto Workers in the Southern United States and the rest of the country. In the days prior, workers at the Volkswagen plant had cast their ballots determining whether they would join the United Auto Workers union, setting up collective bargaining and a German-style works council. This may sound like a familiar narrative in American labor history, but Chattanooga's story seemed different because the company, Volkswagen, never opposed the unionization efforts.
MS. JEN GOLDBECKAnd that made it all the more surprising when the judge announced the union lost the vote. Joining me to discuss what happened in Tennessee and what it could mean for labor unions locally and around the country, are Mike Elk, a reporter for In These Times. He's been covering the UAW vote in Chattanooga and he's joining us by phone. Thanks for joining us, Mike.
MR. MIKE ELKYeah, it's great to be on.
GOLDBECKAnd in studio is Stephen Silvia, a professor of international relations and economics at American University. He's author of "Holding the Shop Together: German Industrial Relations in the Post-War Era." Good to have you here, Stephen.
DR. STEPHEN SILVIAThanks, Jen.
GOLDBECKMike, let's start with you. In the days leading up to the decision, there is a clear sense that the workers were going to vote in favor of joining the United Auto Workers union.
ELKI wouldn't say that.
ELKI wouldn't say that, no. I mean, I've spent my whole life around union organizers. I was raised by a single father who was a union organizer. He used to take me on the road with him on his campaigns in West Virginia. I can't tell you how many campaigns I've seen where a week or two ahead of time you have 60, 70 percent cards, which means you have 60, 70 percent of members having signed a card indicating you want to join. And then in the last two or three weeks, everybody just goes, you know, says, "Hey, we don't want the union."
ELKAnd what winds up happening is workers get in this gauntlet, you know, of trial by error, where there's all these threats coming after then. And, in this situation, the threats that were coming after them were coming from the outside. Senator Bob Corker, who's this -- was saying that if the plant voted to unionize, if they voted down the UAW, they would get a new assembly line. And when, you know, the head of Volkswagen in Chattanooga said, "Hey, you know, the union stuff's got nothing to do with the situation with assembly line.
ELKWhen the head of -- that guy said that, Corker then doubled-down and said, "No, no, no, no, no. Frank Fischer doesn't know what's going on. I'm privy to the conversations in Germany." And so that was a threat that was on the table. The state lawmakers, the leaders of both Houses came out and threatened to, you know, implied that maybe they wouldn't give anymore tax incentives to the plant, if they voted to unionize. And then, finally, the governor of the state went around saying that he was having trouble attracting factories to the plant, because factories were worried about bringing in another union plant.
ELKSo this was the outside atmosphere. And then on top of that, as I review it, you know, I obtained leaked antiunion documents back in November that a union buster gave to me. And what these documents revealed is that this was part of a big campaign that was being orchestrated by Grover Norquist political operative named Matt Patterson. And, as part of this campaign, they had to get into workers the idea that the union would be bad for them, that it would destroy their livelihoods.
ELKSo workers were really excited before the threats started happening. And on top of those side threats, you know, VW had a neutrality agreement with the union, which essentially means that VW says they're not going to oppose the union. But what winded up happening is that the German managers were -- that were running Volkswagen, and in the higher positions in Volkswagen America, didn't really have much of a problem with unions. They're entirely unionized in Germany and that's how they do business. They use this works council model that the unions sit on and they make some decisions over production.
ELKSo they thought it was going to go all right, you know, because, you know, 78 percent of the time that a company doesn't oppose a union election, they win. And then 46 percent of the time, when a company does oppose, you know, unions win. And overall, unions win 60 percent of all union elections. And, you know, to give you an idea of why this neutrality was so important, you know, it's almost double the rate when it's not unionized. In one out of, when there's not a neutrality agreement, in one out of every three campaigns, a worker gets fired.
ELKIn 90 percent of the campaigns, and we know this from research that Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University did, club nosed, no holds barred seminal study that she did for workplace intimidation and that she's been collecting data on for 20 years. And in one out of three organizing campaigns, a worker gets fired. And in this country, the penalty for firing a worker on the job is that basically you have to post a piece of paper in your workplace saying that you're not going to fire anymore workers.
ELKNow, if the penalty in this country was that if you robbed a bank, you'd have to post a piece of paper, we'd probably be bank robbers. I mean, it's a little bit more than that. Sometimes you have to pay back pay. But there's not very high consequences. So most employers just fire workers at will. And they can fight it out for years. And, if a worker moves on to another job, they don't even really have a right to much back pay at all.
GOLDBECKStephen, what dynamics did you see that were in play here?
SILVIAWell, I think a lot of what Mike said is absolutely on the mark, that the company did take a neutral position. But it is very difficult in our society and, in fact, one can even look at Germany, itself, that the unionization rate in Germany has fallen in half over the last 30 years. And I think what that shows is an overall trend in highly advanced countries toward individualization, which makes it hard for unions to do the kind of work that they did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, when people were more collective in their attitudes.
GOLDBECKInteresting. Mike, Volkswagen, as you mentioned, didn't oppose the campaign because it agreed on a neutrality agreement with the United Auto Workers. Can you tell us what that deal looked like and what effect you think it had on the union's efforts to promote their cause?
ELKWell what that deal looks like is, it was an agreement where Volkswagen gave up certain things that they could legally do in the United States. For example, a common tactic that union organizers use in the United States is the idea of a house visit -- you know, a door-to-door community organizer kind of thing. Where, "Hey, I'm a worker. You're a worker. You come over to my house. We talk about union. Maybe we have dinner. We sit around. We get to know each other for three or four hours. I get to know what your concerns are. You get to know me and we get to develop a relationship of trust."
ELKYou begin to see that the union is not just some abstract bureaucracy that has billions of dollars of assets, that's telling you what to do like every other institution in your life, because the union is supposed to be the one institution that you control in society, ideally. That's the argument at least that we give to workers, is get a union and you'll have a voice in your life. You'll have a voice in your job. No longer can you just be fired at will. No longer can your boss just treat you horribly. But there was no attempt. They were limited in their ability to do that.
ELKAnd not only that, the whole time, as part of the neutrality agreement, the United Auto Workers agreed to say nothing negative about Volkswagen. So here you have this situation where the union can't really built the kind of relationships of trust that it needs to build. And it can't state what it's going to offer you other than, "Hey, everything's hunky-dory right now. And so into this dynamic happens is that the union buster -- the union buster is the biggest liar you'll ever meet in your life.
ELKThere's quite a book by J. Martin Levitt (sic) called, "Confessions of a Union Buster," which was written by a recovered alcoholic. He went back and he traced all the people's lives he destroyed, people that committed suicide, those kind of things. And the union buster comes into the setting. And, you know, the joke that the union buster tells is, everybody really likes the idea of a union, if you look at (word?)
ELKAnd then, what a union buster tells us -- this is the joke that Marty Levitt would always tell is, you know, he would go up to workers, and you, typically, the union busters' the slickest talking guy in the plant. Sometimes they're sociopaths, sometimes they're alcoholics, and, you know, Martin Levitt really traces this. And his opening joke with workers was, "You know, hey, do you like your wife?" And he'd go into a room full of like men in Appalachia and say, "Hey, you know, you like your wife?" You know. And all the men would start laughing.
ELKAnd then, you know, he'd put a guy on the spot, "Well, you know, you like sleeping with your wives? Well, how would you like it if your mother-in-law got into bed with you each night? That's what having a union is like." And then the union buster becomes this guy who takes everybody out drinking, who persuades people that, "No, no, no, look. Look. That union, they don't care about you. They just want to support these Democrats. They're, you're white guys, they're black. You know, they don't have your interests at heart. Look, they're some lazy workers and you're better off on your own, because you're a smart guy."
ELKAnd so the union buster plays on that sense of individualism. And they often spread lies. And, you know, the one thing I heard is, you know, the UAW did cut this agreement, this neutrality agreement. And they weren't allowed to do certain things. And they also agreed in the neutrality agreement that they would negotiate a contract that would eventually contain a cost containment measure. And what this -- what the workers took this to mean is that the UAW had secretly already negotiated a contract. And that was how they were able to get this deal.
ELKAnd that the UAW wasn't saying anything bad about the company because the UAW was in bed with the company.
GOLDBECKSo, Stephen, I'd like to -- I'd like to get your thoughts on this, just so we can get a couple perspectives on it. Your response to what Mike said and then also talk to us a little bit about the works council, which was part of this agreement.
SILVIASure. The union had a tough strategy that they really had to try to balance many things at once. One of the things that they had to try to do was obviously show to the employees that it'd be worth it to pay the dues every month to have a union, if they'd something in return. And this is where the -- what Mike talked about -- in the neutrality agreement, worked against the union, because employees looked at this and said, "This is an agreement that says, we're not going to catch up to the big three. And so that is a bit of a concern, that we may be locked in a second-tier status as far as wages and benefits."
SILVIABut, on the other hand, the union had to balance with Volkswagen and make clear to Volkswagen that operating in Tennessee would still be viable. So trying to balance those two was very difficult. And I think the union got caught up a bit in that. Now, to the question of works councils. Works councils in Germany are supplemental to unions. And they're based in German law. In large companies -- the workers in large companies are allowed to elect members who represent the employees on a range of issues: on changing the technology in a plant, on large layoffs.
SILVIAAnd you have meetings every six months between management and labor. So Volkswagen has these in every plant where it can have them, worldwide, except for the United States. And Volkswagen has found works councils to be quite effective in helping to enhance productivity and also just trying to avoid misunderstandings that can cause problems in a workplace. The difficult thing for Volkswagen in trying to bring the works council to the United States is U.S. Labor Law says that you cannot have any organization that the company in any way, shape or form, pays for that's an employee organization.
SILVIAThat's seen as a company union. It makes sense to have legislation like that. And there were court cases in the 90s that said, in the U.S., DuPont and Electromation, they tried to set up things that were called quality circles. And these were productivity enhancing institutions. And the courts found these to be in violation of U.S. labor law. And the court finding said, if you want to have a works council, you need to do it with and through a union. So that's what led Volkswagen to be interested in being neutral on a UAW organizing its plant because then it could get to a works council.
GOLDBECKIt'll be really interesting to see how this plays out both with Volkswagen and in the South in general where it looks like there's interesting issues coming forward as they try to unionize in a place where a lot of blue collar jobs are coming forward. This is a great conversation but we're running out of time. I'd like to thank our guests. Mike Elk is a reporter for In These Times. Thanks for joining us, Mike.
GOLDBECKAnd Stephen Silvia is a professor at American University. Thanks for being with us.
GOLDBECKI'm Jen Goldbeck. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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