Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., are caught between two powerful interests. They’re urged by the United Auto Workers to vote next week to join the union, with organizing help of the VW management, even though most employees apparently don’t approve.
The leaders of the German automobile manufacturer are doing all they can for the union. The company has allowed union activists to canvass inside the plant, while forbidding employees opposed to unionization an equal chance to argue the other side. Germans have a curious understanding of free speech.
Foreign automobile manufacturers, particularly those in Germany and Japan, have scared Detroit straight. American cars are actually better than they used to be. But “Detroit” has moved south, decimating auto manufacturing in Michigan, and the UAW is desperate for a new source of dues-paying members.
The new plants in the South are in right-to-work states, where coercive unions are not popular. The union is trying to break this trend by cultivating a strong and incestuous relationship with the UAW’s German counterpart, and Volkswagen itself.
The UAW campaign kicked off with a devious attempt to force unionization through the “card check” process. Employees were told to sign cards for innocuous reasons, and once in hand the cards were used to say that a majority wanted to unionize.
That campaign crashed thanks to the protests of VW employees who gathered their own signatures exposing the ruse.
Unions will have a tough time winning this battle, even with help from management. The union last played this game in 2001, when Nissan employees in Smyrna, Tenn., overwhelmingly told the union organizers to hit the road.
This time, billboards have been set up near the VW factory to say: “United Obama Workers. The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians including Barack Obama.” That’s an effective message in a state where Mr. Obama won a mere 39 percent of the vote in 2012.
Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, is nevertheless wary of “backroom deals” that give the union organizers an advantage.
“We call on VW,” says Mr. Mix, “to give workers opposing the union equal access and also to release any agreements it has signed regarding what would happen if the UAW union takes monopoly bargaining power over the workplace … . VW workers should be given all the facts before the election so that they can make an informed choice, and we will oppose efforts to stampede them or tilt the playing field.”
The boss of Volkswagen’s German union, IG Metall, compares the lack of a union in the plant to life in North Korea. (He might have said “life in 1930s Germany,” but he didn’t.)
The company doesn’t want to deal with union trouble at home and wants to broker peace at any price.
Difficult as achieving a union victory might be, Volkswagen is flirting with fire. By stifling the sentiments of its workers, it could be promoting its own demise. It happened in Detroit.