The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

All eyes on Chattanooga: VW’s workers are deciding the future of unions in the South

Could life be better for Volkswagen's line workers?  (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)
Placeholder while article actions load

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Employees at the Volkswagen auto plant here will vote Friday on whether to join the United Auto Workers union, marking the end of a fevered battle between national conservative groups and labor leaders over the future of the right-to-work South.

If a majority of Volkswagen's 1,570 hourly workers vote yes, it would mark the first time in nearly three decades of trying that the UAW has successfully organized a plant for a foreign brand in the United States. This time, the union has a powerful ally: Volkswagen itself, which is hoping the union will collaborate in a German-style "works council" and help manage plant operations.

Tennessee's GOP leaders -- along with well-funded conservative activists such as Grover Norquist -- aren't letting the UAW in without a fight. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has publicly fretted about the danger of torching the state's low-cost reputation, and Sen. Bob Corker (R), who wooed VW to town as mayor of Chattanooga, has been barnstorming media outlets to warn against giving the UAW a toehold.

"This is all about money for them. They feel like, if they can get up under the hood with a company in the South, then they can make progress in other places," Corker said. "There's no question that the UAW organizing there will have an effect on our community's ability to continue to recruit businesses."

National labor leaders agree that Chattanooga would be a seminal victory and are watching the vote closely.

"This is enormously important for the labor movement as a whole," said Damon Silvers, policy director at the AFL-CIO. "The European transplants are a puzzle that the American labor movement has been trying to work out for decades, and the UAW seems to have figured it out."

For their part, Volkswagen executives are lying low and claiming neutrality. They acknowledge their desire for a works council, arguing that their model of labor-management relations serves them well in every other country in the world, except China. Under U.S. law, the company cannot set up a works council without first having its employees vote for a union.

This week, however, GOP state Sen. Bo Watson threatened VW directly, warning that a potential expansion at the plant would have a "very tough time" winning tax incentives from the Republican-controlled Senate in Nashville if the election succeeds. At a time where almost no manufacturer goes anywhere without juicy incentive packages -- Volkswagen itself already got $577 million to build its state-of-the-art facility -- that's a serious threat.

The ferocity may come from the knowledge that the UAW has historically supported Democrats and could bolster the ailing party if it got established in Tennessee, where union density is actually on the upswing after years of decline. In the shorter term, though, it may be a preemptive defense against tea-party challengers.

"Right now, because the Democrats are not very effective competitors in most of the state legislative races, most legislators' concern comes from the right, not from the middle or the left," said Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer. "They don't want to give a potential primary opponent an issue, so they're going to play pretty hardball to keep that from happening."

Meanwhile, conservative groups are pouring money into town, viewing Chattanooga as key to blocking labor's momentum. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation helped eight Volkswagen workers challenge union election procedures, alleging that VW did not give anti-union activists equal access to workers. Norquist's Center for Worker Freedom has been churning out anti-union op-eds and placed 13 billboards around town with slogans such as: "Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW."*

Here's the problem with the get-tough approach: It's making things uncomfortable with Volkswagen, which is deciding whether to build an SUV model in Chattanooga or at one of its plants in Mexico. For newly elected Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke, that means another 2,000 jobs are on the line.

"What I'm trying to do is make sure that the city continues the positive relationship with the company, so they will be more likely to pick this location as opposed to Mexico," Berke said, choosing his words carefully. "We never want to put politics ahead of jobs."

For their part, Tennessee's job creators have mostly remained quiet. The Tennessee Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Global Automakers association of foreign car companies, the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce all either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries.

Even Bill Hagerty, commissioner of economic development for the state's Republican governor, acknowledges that he's had little trouble attracting auto suppliers to Tennessee in the years since VW started talking about a works council. There are now a total of 650 firms, employing 94,000 people.

"They're concerned whether the activity in our state might spill over into their operations, but we've been able to allay their concerns," Hagerty says. "We've still been able to succeed in this environment."

That hasn't reassured state Rep. Mike Sparks (R), who represents the non-union Nissan plant in Smyrna, a town outside Nashville. He used to work on an assembly line himself, and increasingly, he's been frustrated at Nissan for cutting regular jobs and hiring temporary workers, who don't earn as much or qualify for the same benefits. But Sparks doesn't think unionization is the answer, worrying that the plant's 7,000 jobs could disappear altogether if the UAW gains traction.

"I don't want it to come to Nissan, and I'll tell you why," Sparks said. "I've been told by a very credible source that if Nissan ever unionized, they would leave the state of Tennessee. That would devastate my community."

There's a certain irony to the organizing drive at Volkswagen, though: The employees there already have some of the best wages and benefits in the state. Union advocates say they're not looking to earn more, and that management already treats them well. That's why some workers -- and their families -- think it's not worth it to pay dues.

Take Candy and Steve, who were eating hash browns, eggs and toast at Waffle House during Wednesday night's snowstorm. Their son works as a quality control manager at the Volkswagen plant -- they declined to give their last name to avoid identifying him -- and opposes the union.

"If you worked at a place that didn't treat the workers fairly, it'd be a whole different thing," said Candy, slathering jam on toast. "But I think the people who think this is going to help them is the lower-wage workers. They think this is going to help them move up the line. All it does is protect the people who don't deserve to be protected. And it's not fair to the people who're working their tails off all day, that the people who don't pull their share of the load are protected by the union. And that's just not right."

Rather than fighting injustice, pro-union workers say, it's simply a matter of respect.

Jonathan Walden, 39, worked in Alabama in low-wage food service and retail until landing a job in Volkswagen's paint shop, where he currently earns $17 an hour. Walden, who describes himself as "so conservative I'm liberal," said he was initially skeptical about the union idea. But the more he thought about it, collectivism started to sound all right.

"It's a sense and knowledge that my input is being taken into account, and that I am a part of the process, and not a sense of 'I'm here and what I'm doing is what they're telling me to do,' " Walden said. Besides, the pro-union workers argue, a works council allows companies to exchange information with employees and collaborate to solve problems. "It's free market research."

Even the Japanese automakers like Nissan know this, not to mention other German companies such as BMW and Mercedes; their foreign workforces are also largely represented by unions. "The Americanization of these companies is what poisons the atmosphere," says Thomas Kochan, co-director of MIT's Institute for Work and Employment Research.

That's what the UAW is trying to tell American and foreign manufacturers alike: That they've got the companies' interests at heart as well.

"You look at all the press the politicians are putting out, 'same old union, don't mess with them.' But we're actively trying to produce this new model of representation," UAW Southern Region director Gary Casteel said as voting got underway in Chattanooga this week. "We're actively trying to produce this new model of representation. So if we're successful, it should show employers that we're willing to work with the systems that are important to them. This is important to VW. The UAW has no experience with a works council. But we're willing to develop some."

And after that, they can convince people like Candy and Steve at Waffle House, and those in Smyrna, all the way down to the plants in Alabama. Just ask Chris Brown, another pro-union worker, whose grandfather helped organize a copper mine and his mother helped organize a Levi Strauss factory. If the UAW election succeeds, he said, the argument becomes easier to make.

"Because when they see the difference it makes in workers' lives, having union representation, it's no longer a story about someone who lives on the other side of the country," Brown said. "It's your next-door neighbor telling you about it."

Corrected to reflect the fact that worker-organized groups, not the Center for Worker Freedom, were handing out flyers. Also, the Center has placed 13 billboards, not 11.