Some 1,500 employees at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., started voting today on whether to affiliate with the United Auto Workers. Here are a couple of interesting points about this vote, which will continue through Friday.
--Volkswagen’s in favor.
--Tennessee Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, have been threatening the company with retribution if the vote succeeds.
Reading the remarks of the state’s GOP politicians is like a trip through cloud-cuckoo-land. Here’s a statement sent to the Detroit Free Press by State Sen. Bo Watson of Chattanooga: "Volkswagen has promoted a campaign that has been unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American in the traditions of American labor campaigns .... Should the workers choose to be represented by the United Auto Workers, then I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate.”
Apparently the “American” style of labor campaign is one in which the employer moves heaven and earth to intimidate workers and suppress their legal right to collective bargaining, not one in which the employer sees concrete benefits in a union presence on the factory floor.
The Republicans appear to be afraid that the UAW vote will eat into Tennessee’s hard-earned as a right-to-work (read: anti-union) state. A UAW victory at Volkswagen, moreover, would be its first at a foreign-owned auto plant in the country. The politicians have expressed fears that other manufacturing companies will shun Tennessee if the UAW cracks open the door.
By far the most cynical expression of this view came from Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, at a press conference on the eve of the vote. “We know these discussions are having a dampening effect on our economic growth,” he said, “and we’re concerned that if they actually come in and win this election -- then obviously it’s going to be something we can overcome -- we will overcome --"
Stop right there. “We will overcome”?
The most shocking thing about this is that the shade of Pete Seeger, so recently laid to rest, didn’t instantly rise from the grave at this perversion of his protest song and deliver a lightning bolt directly at the place where Corker so smugly sat. Video of the remarks by Corker, who also said (if you can fathom the presumptuousness) “the whole world is watching,” is online.
What does Volkswagen get out of the vote? It’s hoping to establish a German-style management-labor “works council,” which by U.S. law requires the workers to be represented by a union. When Bernd Osterloh, a member of the company’s supervisory board, came to Tennessee in November to tamp down the political uproar, he explained to the Associated Press that “Volkswagen considers its corporate culture of works councils a competitive advantage.”
That’s important, because what’s at stake is Volkswagen’s plan to spend $7 billion in North America to build up the market share for VW and Audi vehicles. Part of that strategy is to introduce a mid-sized SUV. The company says it hopes to build the vehicle in Chattanooga, though a plant in Mexico is also a candidate.
VW can’t be happy to hear Tennessee politicos talk about withdrawing incentives from the company merely because it has reached out to its labor force. The Tennessee leaders’ approach to labor-management relations would do discredit to a tribe of Neanderthals. If VW concludes that it needs to go south of the border in search of a rational approach to industrial development, the Tennesseans will have only themselves to blame.