UAW drive falls short amid culture clash in Tennessee
The failure of the United Auto Workers to unionize employees at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee underscores a cultural disconnect between a labor-friendly German company and anti-union sentiment in the South.
The multiyear effort to organize Volkswagen’s only U.S. plant was defeated on a 712-626 vote Friday night amid heavy campaigning on both sides.
Workers voting against the union said while they remain open to the creation of a German-style “works council” at the plant, they were unwilling to risk the future of the Volkswagen factory that opened to great fanfare on the site of a former Army ammunition plant in 2011.
“Come on, this is Chattanooga, Tennessee,” said worker Mike Jarvis, who was among the group in the plant that organized to fight the UAW. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to us.”
Jarvis, who hangs doors, trunk lids and hoods on cars said workers also were worried about the union’s historical impact on Detroit automakers and the many plants that have been closed in the North, he said.
“Look at every company that’s went bankrupt or shut down or had an issue,” he said. “What is the one common denominator with all those companies? UAW. We don’t need it.”
Pocketbook issues were also on opponents’ minds, Jarvis said. Workers were suspicious that Volkswagen and the union already might have reached “cost containment” agreements that could have led to a cut in their hourly pay rate to that made by entry-level employees with the Detroit Three automakers, he said.
The concern, he said, was that the UAW “was going to take the salaries in a backward motion, not in a forward motion,” said Jarvis, who makes around $20 per hour as he approaches his three-year anniversary at the plant.
Southern Republicans were horrified when Volkswagen announced it was engaging in talks with the UAW last year. Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who has been among the UAW’s most vocal critics, said at the time that Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” in the business world if it welcomed the union to its plant.
Volkswagen wants to create a works council at the plant, which represents both blue-collar and salaried workers. But to do so under U.S. law requires the establishment of an independent union. Several workers who cast votes against the union said they still support the idea of a works council — they just don’t want to have to work through the UAW.
Volkswagen’s German management is accustomed to unions and works councils, which have been ingrained in its operations since the end of World War II. And labor interests that make up half of the company’s supervisory board have raised concerns that the Chattanooga plant is alone among the automaker’s major factories worldwide without formal worker representation.
But in Tennessee, there’s little recent history of prominent manufacturing unions, and people are suspicious of them.
UAW opponent Sean Moss, who works in the plant’s assembly shop as a quality inspector, said he began hearing more from colleagues with concerns about the union in the last days before the vote.
He said the UAW’s negative reputation resonated with workers at the plant.
As for the UAW, leaders said they’re still evaluating their next steps. Bob King, the union president, wasn’t prepared to say after the vote whether the union would try to take legal action due to what he called unprecedented outside interference.