Letting the Workers Decide: The Fight Over Unionization at VW’s Tennessee Plant


By Silverije, via Wikimedia Commons

By Silverije, via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, I have to begin with a disclaimer:  I love Volkswagens.  I believe my love dates back to my early childhood, when I watched Herbie the Love Bug countless times.  That affection grew to near-obsession when I was in first grade and started the Beetle Club, an exclusive association whose members competed for who could spot the most punchbuggies each month and received a monthly newsletter about VW-related happenings.  And then it culminated in the day I got my first car, a VW Beetle, which I still drive 16 years later.

But despite that bias, I will attempt to maintain my impartiality in writing about VW’s recent labor controversies.  Much like the story of Herbie, this is a tale full of drama and surprises (though no cars come to life, unfortunately). 

For years, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has had little success organizing workers in auto plants outside the Big 3 (GM, Chrysler and Ford).  And the UAW has had virtually no success unionizing auto manufacturing plants in the US South.

But recently, the UAW has been working to unionize workers at VW’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Not surprisingly, the Volkswagen Group of America, the company’s US-based management, was against the unionizing effort. 

Here’s the surprise – VW’s German-based management is not opposed to unionization.  Instead, they’ve maintained a principled stand of neutrality.  VW’s German owners hope to set up a “works council” at the Tennessee plant, similar to those in its European plants, which would give workers a voice on workplace policies and let them work together to improve efficiency.  And VW sees unionization as the way to give workers that voice.

But here’s the next twist.  Because VW’s German management is not opposing the unionization effort, outside groups have taken it upon themselves to do so.  Republican leaders in Tennessee, including Senator Bob Corker and Governor Bill Haslam, have spoken out against the union.  The National Right to Work Foundation has intervened, targeting the Chattanooga employees with anti-union notices and offering free legal assistance to employees who question the union effort.  And the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into media and organizing efforts to attack the union drive.

Perhaps these outside groups are afraid that, when the employer doesn’t run a fierce anti-union campaign, the workers will see for themselves the clear benefits of unionization.

Amidst all the controversy, it’s the workers who will decide.  UAW has already gathered union authorization cards from a majority of the plant’s 2000 workers.  Later this week, on February 12-14, workers will cast secret ballots on whether to join the union.  A vote in favor of the union would certainly be a sweet Valentine’s Day present for VW workers – and for democracy and efficiency in the workplace.

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