By Joe Atkins, Labor South
The United Auto Workers' decision last week to move forward with establishing UAW Local 42 for Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. shows the creativity that's necessary to break through the Southern oligarchy's locked-arm opposition to organized labor.
The decision came just days before Volkswagen announced that it was adding a new product line to the Chattanooga plant with the aide of state and federal incentive funds. The company is pumping $600 million into its Tennessee operations to build a new SUV plus add a research and development center. The new line and center will bring an estimated 2,200 workers to the plant.
Although workers rejected union representation by 712-626 vote in February, "the election was so close, we don't feel it's right to turn our backs on these workers," UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel told The Tennessean in Nashville.
The UAW decided to forego pursuing a legal challenge of the February election to the National Labor Relations Board despite widespread accounts of anti-union interference by top Republican politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and organizations like Americans for Tax Reform.
"The UAW knew that withdrawing its objections to February's tainted election, in consensus with Volkswagen, would expedite the company's decision on the new product line," Casteel said in a formal statement. "The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the UAW has reached with the company."
Casteel said "a cornerstone of Volkswagen's business model" is the Global Groups Works Council that provides employee representation on work-related issues at Volkswagen plants around the world.
In fact, Global Works Council chairman Bernd Osterloh, a strong supporter of union representation at the Chattanooga plant, was recently appointed to the board of directors of Volkswagen's American operations. At one point, Osterloh said he would work to prevent the new SUV line from coming to Chattanooga if workers there didn't get union representation.
Local 42 will not collect dues for the time being, and participation is voluntary. However, the UAW hopes membership will grow to a size that gives it weight in representing workers' concerns at the plant. No formal agreement exists with Volkswagen regarding the local, but a "consensus" exists that allows the local to work with the company in the future, Casteel said.
This non-traditional approach to worker representation is somewhat similar to other efforts across the South to help those who have no collective voice vis-à-vis management. Examples include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, both of which have won agreements with major corporations despite the fact that farm workers aren't covered in the National Labor Relations Act.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.