Times Opinion: Sorting out the pieces in a union vote everybody lost
“It’s unfortunate there were some outside influences.”
That was the statement of United Auto Workers regional director Gary Casteel on Friday night after learning that Volkswagen Chattanooga workers rejected the union by a vote of 712-626. “I urge VW employees to go back to building cars,” Casteel said. “There are some issues still to be sorted out about this election.”
That’s resoundingly true. And not least among those issues is whether Tennessee Republican politicians — especially U.S. Sen. Bob Corker — abused their power by threatening plant incentives and stating that they had inside information that if workers rejected the union, then VW would get a second vehicle assembly line to build the company’s new crossover sport utility vehicle here.
“What [Tennessee’s U.S. Sen. Bob] Corker did, guaranteeing that SUV, probably affected it,” a union official reportedly said after the vote. “By promising it, he took it away from them.”
Let’s hope not. But there was, and frankly still is, that much and more at stake: The future of unionization, more Chattanooga jobs, a company that still doesn’t have what it calls a “works council,” political pride and the potential for new labor campaign donations in a very “red” state. And now perhaps also hanging in the balance might be an National Labor Relations Board investigation and legal challenge.
“We going to sit down with our legal department and make a collective decision on our next steps,” UAW president Bob King said on Friday night. “The threats against the company and the threats against the workers shifted things. … We’re looking at all of our legal options.” King called the actions of state politicians “outrageous.”
The vote represented a new kind of labor union with a great potential to spread. VW wanted to follow in Chattanooga the business model that has worked well at its 61 other plants worldwide. VW calls that model a “philosophy of co-determination,” and it uses a works council made up of blue-collar and white-collar workers collaborating with management to make decisions at the plant.
It seems to be a common-sense and refreshing concept in today’s top-down, re-Guilded Age America when 1 percent of Americans are reaping the lion’s share of the country’s income gains and when Fortune 500 CEOs make 204 times what regular workers average. What’s more, this works council, U.S. style, had potential to be far more more palatable to both workers and businesses, especially Southern businesses.
But to be U.S.-legal, the model needed a union connection, so UAW stepped up, and Volkswagen invited workers and the union to make a decision about their own collaboration while the company would be “neutral.”
That’s when the GOP and notoriously conservative chambers of commerce got nervous. Their manufacturing recruitment calling cards for decades have been “no unions.” And, of course, without unions the GOP-heavy state lawmakers haven’t had much to worry about in the way of labor donations for Democrat opponents.
At the same time, VW and local officials are negotiating ways to make Chattanooga more attractive than Mexico for the new SUV line. That means they’ve been talking about what local incentives (some call it corporate welfare) state and local officials would throw in to sweeten the deal. With all that pressure, Republican solons — the same ones who pride themselves and market their party as being against “big government” — began to act very much like “big government.”
Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee’s U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and others said the economic development sky would fall on Tennessee if VW accepted UAW.
As VW workers prepared for a three-day secret ballot vote, Tennessee Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, a Chattanooga Republican who represents Hixson, threatened future economic incentive deals with Volkswagen if employees agree to allow unionization. Such an expansion would be necessary for the SUV line — something Chattanooga has been hotly competing with Mexico to land.
“Should the workers at Volkswagen choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate,” Watson said. And he called Volkswagen’s UAW/works council effort “un-American.”
Then Corker, who had said he would stay silent once the vote was scheduled, reversed himself and roared into Chattanooga in the midst of the vote and said that VW officials told him if the workers reject the UAW, the plant will become of the site a second vehicle for assembly. The unspoken innuendo, of course, was that VW Chattanooga would not be awarded then new SUV assembly line if the union was accepted.
“I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga,” Corker said.
Who, Senator? VW has stated repeatedly this is not true.
Threats and innuendos — all the machinations of politicians trying to use the power of the state to thwart a union election and coerce a vote the way they want to see it go.
Fellows, you’ve done Boss Hog proud.