Saturday, February 15, 2014

Employees Reject UAW Representation at VW Plant

It's a sad commentary about the modern society and our "dog eat dog" and "all for one and none for all" mentality these days, that it should come as no surprise to learn that another union was unsuccessful in its organizing efforts. After all, the management thugs probably did everything they could to keep the union out--from threats and bullying to under the table bribes to playing "good cop/bad cop" by supervisors. Another example of "The Man" screwing the Working Class right? Well, perhaps not so much.

Workers in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga Tennessee voted 712 to 636 on February 14th to reject the United Auto Workers bid to represent them. Approximately 1500 of the plant's 1600 workers showed up Friday night to vote. The results were announced by retired local judge Samuel H. Payne after representatives from the National Labor Relations Board completed counting the votes. The outcome was considered yet another blow against unionization in the South, which continues to reject unions throughout the South. But here's the irony about the vote---management at the VW plant actually tacitly supported the union's efforts and even welcomed union organizers to come and make their best sales pitch! Yelp, you read that right. Both the plant's management and the UAW were on the same side and it was the employees who said "no thanks".

While both the pro and anti sides were naturally claiming victory in the days preceding the vote, it was widely held by some business leaders that a victory by the union would send a negative message to potential and current employers not just in Tennessee, but throughout the South. But despite outside pressure to the contrary, kudos are in order for both the State officials and plant management for keeping a hands off attitude and allowing the employees the opportunity to hear the union's message and interact with the organizing committee, and then, to freely make their own decision. Although, to be sure, employees also got to hear the other side's message as to why unionization would be bad for them and the plant in a point of equal time.

So, why did the UAW's efforts fail? Well, it seems that the most oft cited reason was the UAW itself and its performance over the years in places like Detroit. While some employees pointed to the lack of global competitiveness, others indicted that the declining membership rolls was in itself an indicator that the UAW wasn't doing right by its members (UAW membership has dropped from 1.5 million in 1979 to 382,000 in 2012). If it was, membership should going the other way, especially in this lackluster economy where job security and benefits are "Job 1" to borrow from catch phrase used by the UAW at Ford Motors. However, most importantly it appears that most of the employees felt they were already being paid well, with decent benefits, job security and were being treated fairly. Some cited a lack of "bad blood" between management and labor and felt the UAW could not offer them nothing, and could, quite possibly, create an air of animosity which currently doesn't exist.

When asked why the union failed to win a majority of support, UAW President, Bob King, blamed local and states politicians---all allegedly Republican of course---for the defeat. He added that last fall, a majority of the workforce had signed union cards (proof has not been forthcoming). Mr. King's explanation also didn't jive with the majority of employee statements.

It should be noted that labor is well represented on the supervisory board---comprising half---in Volkswagen's home offices in Wolfsburg Germany. VW had previously said they would like to see a similar German style representation of workers at their Chattanooga plant, which is the only VW plant in North America without one. The "worker's council" allows elected employee representatives and management to work together in making decisions about the operation of the plant---from job hires to safety issues to compensation and layoffs. Every member has equal decision making power on the board. VW points out the current US labor law requires an independent union to comprise the council; meaning employees must bring in an outside union to represent them rather than choosing from among fellow employees to represent them on the Chattanooga plant's supervisory board. So, what's the take away? Should organized labor write off the South?

Maybe the first issue to look at is the nature of the South itself. While migration to and from Old Dixie has diluted much what we think of when we talk about the South, much still remains too. One of those characteristics is their sense of independence, self reliance, fair play and a good measure of stubbornness. Southerners, however, would regardless this as pride and self respect (as an aside, the Old South was largely settled by the Scots-Irish, Northern English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish while the North was mainly Southern and Midlands English, Germans, and other Europeans which some historians and sociologists claim explains part of the Southern character).

Another and perhaps more accurate reason is the fact that the employees largely felt they were being treated and paid fairly, so why do they need a union? Let's face it---businesses are ultimately responsible for whether a company is unionized or not based on how they treat their employees. Look at the industries which became heavily unionized. They were almost always the ones who treated their employees like dirt. So, if you want to avoid unions, treat your employees well. Yet another reason was that many employees cited the UAW itself as why they rejected unionization. The UAW doesn't exactly have a stellar history when it comes to performance. Perhaps if another union was to approach the employees, the outcome would be different. Comments from the employees seemed to indicate so.

Lastly, it's clear that existing US labor law is outdated. Obviously employees are competent enough to elect a union to represent them on a worker's council and serve on a plant supervisory board, they are competent enough to elect from their own ranks; an idea that I think is marvelous by the way. After all, employees taking care of each other is what union solidarity is supposed to be about isn't it?

United Auto Workers Union Rejected by Volkswagen Workers at Tennessee Plant

Volkswagen Vote is Defeat for Labor in the South

UAW Vote at Volkswagen Plant in Tenn. Ends Friday

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