When it comes to union organizing at an auto plant, the tension is typically between the workers and the management. But not at Volkswagen. The United Auto Workers is attempting to finally unionize its first foreign-owned plant in the South. And so far, Republican officials are the ones trying to stand in the way.
Just outside of Chattanooga, in an idyllic industrial park surrounded by green hills and even a nature preserve, Volkswagen built a plant that remains its only facility in the U.S. It’s also Volkswagen’s only plant around the world that hasn’t been unionized, and the company isn’t trying that hard to keep workers from organizing.
“I just really appreciate the neutrality we’re getting from Volkswagen Germany,” says Lauren Feinauer, an hourly worker in quality control. “They have always maintained that it would be our choice.”
By law, the company isn’t supposed to interfere, but automakers have been known to influence union elections where they can.
The Chattanooga plant makes the Passat. In Feinauer’s own Volkswagen, she props up UAW signs in the windshield and rear window while she’s parked at work.
“A sunshade,” she says. “Kind of encourage other people in the plant to be comfortable with their support.”
Feinauer has helped collect signed union cards from a majority of the 2,000 employees.
There are some workers who want nothing to do with the UAW. They haven’t spoken much publicly, but a few have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing Volkswagen is coercing them to organize.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has piped up on their behalf, though he’s been asked why he feels that’s appropriate.
“One of the reasons is we’ve had several prospective companies say that decision will impact whether we choose Tennessee or somewhere else,” he says.
The Republican governor says a slowdown in relocations may be just the beginning. Companies appreciate the region’s right-to-work laws. No one has to be part of a union, so there aren’t as many. That means fewer strikes and often lower pay.
But the UAW is working the South harder than ever with other campaigns at a Nissan plant in Mississippi and a Mercedes facility in Alabama.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker – previously the mayor of Chattanooga – suggests Volkswagen will be the “laughingstock” of the business world if it doesn’t resist the UAW. He blames the union for the troubles at Chrysler and GM.
“I mean look at Detroit. Look at what’s happened,” he says. “Look at all of the businesses that have left there. I mean, it’s been phenomenal. It’s sad.”
The UAW has resisted raising its voice in response.
“They get pressured from the right wing of the party,” says union president Bob King. “Unfortunately, that’s a fear that these politicians have that overcomes common sense.”
A New UAW
King is not an old-school, hell-raising union leader. In fact, he discourages any characterization of this as a “union fight.”
“All the campaigns we have going on currently are being run very differently than we have run campaigns in the past,” he says.
No more “us versus them.” The pitch is all about cooperation and mutual benefit for workers and the company.
King says Tennessee’s top Republicans have a standing offer to meet and discuss the labor movement’s role in the 21st century. They haven’t taken him up on it.
“You know the truth is the governor and the senator, they don’t work on the floor at Volkswagen,” says Jade Morgan, a single father of two boys who works on the overnight shift in Chattanooga.
Ultimately, Morgan says, it’s those who work in the plant who will get to decide whether the UAW is still worth having around.
And he points out that both Haslam and Corker are multi-millionaires who may never understand.
“It’s not anybody who can walk in and work all night,” he says. “It’s tough.”