Volkswagen: The Union, the Worker and Intimidation

For the next three days, workers at the Volkswagen (VW) Plant in Tennessee will decide whether they want to organize as a Union. Volkswagen is a German company at which every plant across the world, except Chattanooga, TN and China, which manufacture these vehicles is unionized.  However, conservative law makers in Tennessee, as well as other vocal conservatives across the United States are outraged about the possibility that this plant may unionize.

The Volkswagen Corporation has taken a neutral stand in this issue for the Tennessee plant, but that has not stopped lawmakers from what appears to be both intimidation of the actual workers as well as the Company.  For example, “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga”, said (Sen. Bob) Corker, without saying with whom he had the conversations. (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/02/13/1277294/-Corker-threatens-jobs-if-Volkswagen-workers-unionize?detail=facebook)  The article also points out however that VW is neutral when it comes to the unionization of the plant. Sen. Corker suggesting that there is a direct link between the workers voting down unionization in order to be named as the place chosen to build VW SUV’s seems disingenuous at best.

Senator Corker is not the only one making statements which appear to intimidate the election taking place at the plant.  Tennessee State Senator, Bo Watson said that if the workers choose to unionize they “would jeopardize any future financial incentives the state might offer Volkswagen.” (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-vw-unions-uaw-republicans-crony-capitalism-20140212,0,7108450.story#axzz2tEu4mAyr)  This comment is more of a threat than it first appears to look.  Volkswagen has indicated they will be looking to expand to build an SUV in the United States as well.  Currently, VW has narrowed down the choices to expanding the plant in Chattanooga or building a plant in New Mexico.  Withholding financial incentives could possibly impact the decision of Volkswagen and seems like an outright threat.

Grover Norquist, a leading Conservative well known for his hard hitting and bullying political tactics, has purchased billboards all over Chattanooga encouraging people to vote down the bid for unionization at the plant.  The billboards have a very simple message “United Auto Workers” but the word United is crossed out and in its place is the word “Obama.”  (http://www.newsmax.com/US/grover-norquist-union-volkswaqen-tennessee/2014/02/07/id/551465)

He also makes the statement that in the past 30 years almost every job lost in a manufacturing plant has been at a unionized plant.  Why are these conservatives so concerned about the possible unionization of one plant in Chattanooga TN?  The simple answer is politics.  Historically, Unions have financially backed Democratic candidates.  In general, Republicans view Unions as a threat to their political power.

Radio and television ads abound about the “terrible” unions.  It is important to remember a few facts about unions and how they made significant and lasting changes to the American workforce which are now being threatened by Conservatives across the United States.  Changes that can be both directly and indirectly attributed to Unions include:

  • 40 hour work weeks
  • Overtime pay
  • Child Labor laws
  • Workers being paid a living wage vs. a minimum wage or less
  • Workers get employer paid benefits such as vacation pay, sick leave, and even health care insurance

There is a reason there are unions in America.  It wasn’t an impulsive decision or created as a means to steal from employers.  Unions were created because workers were being taken advantage of in companies all across the nation.  Workers were poorly paid and lived in tenements.  Children often started work as young as 8.  If someone missed work due to illness or an emergency, someone else was hired to take their place.  There was no such thing as maternity leave.  Jobs were not protected.

We have Unions because most employers didn’t treat employees in a humane manner.  Now, we have Conservatives saying that Unions are the cause of the very things they worked so hard to protect.  Do you really believe that employers would simply do “the right thing” if we did not have Unions and/or the laws in place to protect workers?

Remember the Conservatives, who say employers will treat employees “better” without unions and minimum wage laws, also believe that the group of people in America called “servers” which is made up of waitresses, waiters etc. are paid approximately at $2.13 an hour because they make so much more in tips.   Perhaps that is true in metropolitan areas or up-scale eating establishments, but what about the folks who work at diners or in more rural areas.  Ryan’s is a restaurant that offers a buffet and also pays their servers this wage.  Customers dish up their own meals, carry them to the tables, and get their own condiments.  Servers ask customers what they want to drink and refill their glasses as needed.  Do you think that customer’s tip these people the same as they do in an establishment where the customer orders the food and the server does the rest?

Reviewing the history of unions and the changes they have brought as well as understanding the perceived impact they may have on political races results in an understanding of why Conservatives fight so hard to try “union busting”.  In addition, German plants that are unionized have an additional benefit of participation in “works committees.”   These committees are made up of both workers and management at plants.  These committees review things such as production, safety, and technical issues and how to improve the plant.  They give worker’s a voice and a stake in the actual product. How many employees who have worked for companies have not at one time or another thought of ways that would improve the product or the working environment in their company?  Volkswagen has created a process where these thoughts and opinions are valued and considered.

As we look to what is happening in Chattanooga it is important to remember the adage “if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.”  Unions have an important place in American history and played and continue to play an important role in the lives of working people.  Intimidation of workers is against the law when voting on unionizing.  It is my opinion that some of the tactics being used by Conservatives, including but not limited to, suggesting that the plant will not receive any incentives from the state or federal government if they vote to unionize crosses the line into bullying and intimidation.  As workers, each of us owes a debt of gratitude for our working conditions to Unions.  We must never allow anyone to intimidate workers in the work place.

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