Chatanooga No No to Unionisation at Volkswagen

The United Auto Workers Union (UAW) was dealt a humiliating defeat after the majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chatanooga, Tennesee voted against joining the union, plumping for the workers council system that Volkswagen operates throughout the world. The campaign became somewhat high profile and was led by Republican politicians and external political groups, such as the Center for Worker Freedom, who purchased 13 billboards in the area (pictured above).

The result was announced at a joint press conference and still has to be certified by the National Labour Relations Board, but it is expected that the result of 89% participation with 712 NOs and 626 YESes will stand. In a strange twist, Frank Fischer, CEO and Chairman of VW Chatanooga who had lobbied for the creation of the German-style works councils actually seemed to be sad about the result.

At the press conference, Fischer said, “Our employees have not made a decision that they are against a works council. Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant. Our goal continues to be to determine the best method for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements of US labour law to meet VW America’s production needs and serve our employees’ interests.”

The vote was seen as the UAW’s best chance to organise a non-union plant as the VW management was not in opposition but the plant that opened in 2011 turned them down. Gary Casteel, who directs the UAW’s Southern organising, said “We commend Volkswagen for…trying to provide an atmosphere of freedom to make a decision. Unfortunately, politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility.”

US Senator, Bob Corker, was amongst the heavyweight US Republican politicians who want to maintain the reputation of Tennessee as a non-union state in order to attract new businesses. On a statement on his website, he stated, “Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future.”

Union bashers the world over blame unionisation for the destruction of jobs and nowadays seem to forget the role that unions play in ensuring decent working conditions for their members. In fact, during the bailout of Ford, GM and Chrysler Group in 2009, many blamed the UAW for much of the problems. These are of course the same UAW organised plants that are posting strong profits today.

At the VW plant, the workers make about USD19 per hour, which is low when you compare this rate against the hourly pay of their counterparts in Detroit where a veteran worker can earn USD26 per hour on average, although new hires earn just USD17 per hour. Statistics from the US Labour Department show that the typical unionised worker will earn about USD46 000 per year, 20% more than a non-unionised counterpart for the equivalent job.

There are 30 foreign-owned plants in the US, of which about two thirds are in the South, a region that sells itself on low wages and business-friendly laws in attempt to attract businesses to the region. There are signs though that the South’s resistance to organised labour may be softening with figures showing that Tennessee has the fastest rate of union growth in the US last year. This result, though, could well make future UAW organising more difficult in the South.


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