Volkswagen employee Dave Gleeson says he and others at the Chattanooga assembly plant don’t think much about how a victory for the United Auto Workers at the factory could reshape labor-management relations for the auto industry throughout the South.
Nor do the workers necessarily consider what’s at stake for the UAW, which has hemorrhaged members over the past few decades.
“We’re just trying to get what’s right for us,” said Gleeson, a member of an organizing panel seeking support for the union at the plant.
As summer winds down, the unionization bid at the plant that produces the Passat sedan at Enterprise South industrial park continues in high gear. While the effort has drawn attention from Nashville to Washington, D.C., and from Detroit to Germany, it’s the plant’s 2,000 or so rank-and-file employees who will decide what happens next.
A thumbs-up for the UAW would mark the union’s first success at a major, foreign-owned Southern assembly plant after three decades of trying to crack the traditionally non-union region. It also could begin to reverse four decades of declining union membership in Chattanooga’s private-sector economy — once one of the stronger cities in the South for organized labor.
Joe Atkins, a University of Mississippi professor who follows and writes on labor issues, said the stakes are “very high” for the UAW as it tries to organize not just the Chattanooga plant but Nissan’s assembly plant in Canton, Miss., and the Mercedes-Benz site in Vance, Ala.
Atkins cited national UAW chief Bob King, who has said that if the union is able to unionize a so-called transplant factory in the South, it has a future.
“It’s almost like a do-or-die situation,” Atkins said. “They’ve got to break ground in the South.”
The UAW, like nearly all labor unions, is struggling to add new members. The union has added to its head count for three consecutive years, growing 0.5 percent in 2012 to 383,000. But that’s a pittance compared to its 1979 peak of 1.5 million. The UAW hit its low point in 2009, amid the Great Recession, at 355,191 members.
The share of Tennessee and Georgia workers who count themselves as members of any labor union has fallen by nearly half over the past decade. The two states are among eight in the United States with less than 5 percent of their workforces in some type of labor union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Labor leaders have blamed changes in the economy, outsourcing by industry and anti-union campaigns by companies for membership declines in the South.
But Roger Thompson, who for many years was business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175 in Chattanooga before he retired about four years ago, said he sees hope for unions in some sectors.
In the auto industry, he said, companies such as Volkswagen have strong labor participation in European operations, even boasting of union leaders serving on oversight boards. In fact, it’s a German-style works council labor board that Chattanooga workers are considering in concert with the UAW.
Thompson said union membership protects workers when it comes to issues such as seniority, workplace benefits and grievances.
“Usually wages are one of the last things on the priority list,” he said, citing worker surveys. “Job security nowadays is a key issue.”
Thompson cited a trend toward using contract, or temporary, workers by more and more companies, including the auto sector.
However, some opposed to the UAW effort in Chattanooga say there are multiple reasons to be against that initiative and unions in general.
Charles Van Eaton, a retired labor economist who has taught at Pepperdine University, Hillsdale College and Bryan College, recalled the UAW tried to organize foreign-owned auto plants on a number of occasions and failed.
He cited efforts at a Honda factory in Ohio where the UAW has tried “time and time again” to organize workers. He said the union was unsuccessful in part because the auto plant is extremely productive, even exporting vehicles to Japan.
“The UAW can’t get in because workers are paid so well,” Van Eaton added.
He contrasted Honda’s experience with VW’s first U.S. assembly plant in Pennsylvania, which lasted 10 years and shut down in 1988. Van Eaton said the UAW represented workers in that factory and staged a wildcat strike six months after it opened.
“[The plant] totally failed,” he said.
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said his group has seen what has occurred in places where unionization is high. He cited Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy this summer after its auto manufacturing and population declined.
“It was ultimately forced to its knees,” he said. “Much of that was union related. Generally, unions threaten and demand.”
In addition, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., question the need for the UAW in Chattanooga. Corker has said that even the discussion of the UAW at the Chattanooga plant has hurt economic development in Tennessee.
Still, Gleeson said last week he’s feeling “pretty upbeat” and supporters continue to solicit workers to sign cards calling for UAW representation.
Gleeson, a team leader at VW, said supporters do a lot of one-on-one with individual employees, though they’ve got to follow rules about where and when they can talk while at work.
“[A person] might be interested and not know how to broach the subject … and they can catch me at break,” he said. “If they want to sign a card, they can sign.”
Lon Gravett, another union supporter, said the initiative is “a grassroots effort from the ground up.”
“Everybody has to make their own decision,” he said. “It’s about what’s best for the future.”
The concept of the works council is just one factory workers need to consider, Gravett said, though it has worked in Germany for decades.
“It’s tried and true over there,” he said. And the UAW isn’t anything new in Tennessee, he said — it represents workers at General Motors’ Spring Hill plant.
Gleeson said some workers might be leery of repercussions from the company if they support the union. But, he said, that hasn’t happened so far.
“The company has been fairly good,” Gleeson said. He added that if workers are still concerned, they can meet at an office at the nearby IBEW local and sign the card there.
Gleeson said that if the UAW gets a majority, the union can be recognized by using the signed cards if the company chooses to bypass a secret-ballot election.
VW officials have said workers must decide whether they want a works council and UAW representation. Though in an interesting step this spring, the company’s board member for human resources said the automaker was in talks with the UAW about the German-style works council. Some experts have said that a works council at the plant would run afoul of U.S. labor law if no union is formally involved.
Atkins said the UAW’s Canton initiative has been higher profile because it is making a civil rights case in its appeal to workers.
He said there have been community rallies involving a lot of pastors and activists. Hollywood actor Danny Glover, for example, has been in Canton to express his support, the professor said.
He said the UAW appears to be taking its time to build support there and overcome residual fear of the union.
“They want to be in a position to win when they have a vote,” Atkins said, adding he believes the UAW doesn’t want a repeat of what has happened at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., plant, where union votes have failed on multiple occasions.
Nissan, meanwhile, has said it’s taking a neutral stance, Atkins said. But, he believes the company is fighting the unionization effort. Atkins said Nissan has given $500,000 to Canton public schools and $100,000 to the Medgar & Earlie Evers Institute, and partnered with the national NAACP on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week.
In addition, he said, the company has proposed an expansion and promised to hire more workers.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.
Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...