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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Six Red States Want To Cancel The UAW

LawSix Red States Want To Cancel The UAW

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What is it about Repugnicans and unions? To hear the malicious melodrama meted out by MAGA maniacs, unions are as dangerous as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — a force to be resisted with all their being. To them, unions like the United Auto Workers are the devil incarnate, stealing money from hardworking Americans to pay for lavish escapades of sin and perdition by cigar-chomping union muckety-mucks.

Workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will vote this week on whether they want to become members of the UAW, one of the largest unions in America. The Chattanooga factory manufactures the Atlas and Atlas Sport SUVs and the ID.4 battery-electric SUV. 4,300 workers are eligible to vote in the election, which began on April 17 and ends on April 19, 2024. The factory is the only Volkswagen facility in the world where the workers are not represented by a union.

The UAW Seeks To Expand Its Franchise

The UAW won major concessions for its members from Ford, GM, and Stellantis last year. Now it wants to build on that success by expanding its reach to factories beyond Detroit. To say that the South has been hostile to unions is an understatement. Factory owners in New England fled to the South in droves after World War II to escape the unions that represented mill workers, which is why New England is dotted with abandoned mill buildings that have been mostly sitting empty for the past 70 years. The southern states welcomed the mill owners with open arms and did everything they could to discourage the union movement.

That animus continues to this day. In advance of the vote in Chattanooga, the governors of six Southern states –Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — issued a joint statement that warned their constituents that joining the UAW would threaten jobs and “the values we live by. The reality is companies have choices when it comes to where to invest and bring jobs and opportunity. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy,” the governors wrote.

Stephen Silvia, an economist at American University who has closely studied unionization in the South, told the Washington Post the joint statement by the governors was “unprecedented and shocking.” He added that it discouraged workers from exercising their legal right to organize, which might be an unfair labor practice if done by people subject to the federal labor laws. “It implies that the governors fear that the UAW will prevail in the upcoming union recognition election and that UAW success could upend their economic models built on relatively low pay and minimal worker voice,” he said.

The UAW Lost Two Prior Elections In Chattanooga

Tennessee Republicans helped thwart two previous attempts to unionize the Volkswagen factory, in 2014 and 2019, and have ramped up their opposition in recent weeks with news conferences and public statements. During a visit to Chattanooga this month, Gov. Bill Lee said joining the union would be “a big mistake.” The governor conveniently neglected to mention that the GM factory in Spring Hill, Tennessee, has been unionized since it was built more than 40 years ago and is now producing Cadillacs, including the battery-electric Lyriq, and the Honda Prologue.

Some of the messages from anti-union groups have stressed that the UAW endorsed President Biden and has long ties to the Democratic Party. (It’s no secret that Democrats and unions have a long history of supporting each other.) “We have serious reservations that the UAW leadership can represent our values. They proudly call themselves democratic socialists and seem more focused on helping President Biden get reelected than on the autoworker jobs being cut at plants they already represent,” the governors wrote.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said on social media last week that unions have raised workers’ standard of living and that he was “proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the UAW. The union is seeking to organize a Toyota factory in Kentucky next.

Better Pay & More Safety For Workers

The UAW is already targeting workers at other factories in the South after public support for unions soared last autumn when Joe Biden walked picket lines outside Detroit in solidarity with striking union members. “This is the best chance they’ve ever had,” Cornell University labor professor Art Wheaton told Autoblog. Workers in favor of the UAW said they want better pay and benefits and improved plant safety.

Kelcey Smith, who joined a union organizing committee after being hired about a year ago, said the union’s deals following a six-week strike against the Detroit automakers inspired him. The UAW won record contracts, including double digit pay increases and the return of cost of living adjustments. Smith wants some of those perks himself. “It showed not only me, but the rest of the country and the world, that if you just come together as a collective group, you can bring change for yourself and your families,” he said.

Some employees at the plant say the risks of organizing outweigh the potential rewards, worrying that increased labor costs for Volkswagen could endanger job security. Anti-UAW organizations have also made their voices heard with billboards near the Chattanooga plant urging people to visit a webpage that spotlights a union bribery scandal that resulted in federal convictions of several former UAW leaders. The current UAW leadership was elected after that issue was resolved with federal officials.

Shawn Fain Is Putting Himself On The Line

The vote this week in Tennessee will be a test for UAW President Shawn Fain, who is promoting an ambitious organizing drive across the South and West. Fain and his team have committed $40 million through 2026 to organize more than a dozen nonunion factories owned by Tesla and Toyota, among others. Fain has declined to say that nonunion automakers are the enemy. Instead he calls them “future UAW members.” Winning the election in Chattanooga is critical for the UAW, which continues to shrink in size from a high of 1.5 million members fifty years ago to 370,000 last year. The current organizing push seeks to add 150,000 nonunion workers to its ranks.

Victor Vaughn, 55, who has been part of the volunteer committee of Volkswagen employees which organized meetings at the local UAW hall, told Reuters that momentum in favor of the union built among the workers after the union was seen to win big in Detroit. “They work for different companies, but they’re just like you and me, and they’re fighting for the same issues,” he said.

The new contracts in Detroit — including a 25% wage increase over four years — also caught the attention of President Biden, who is courting UAW members as key voters. “I want this type of contract for all autoworkers,” Biden said at a UAW event last November. He also supports the union’s broader organizing efforts. Many non-union automakers, including Volkswagen, offered raises after the UAW won major concessions from Ford, GM, and Stellantis last fall — an obvious attempt to keep unions out of their factories. Matching those contracts would be even costlier, costing Tesla an extra $1.2 billion in labor costs if it did so, according to Deutsche Bank.

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The Takeaway

There are so many cultural crosscurrents involved in this unionization campaign, it is hard to unpack them all. Southern governors have some reason to fear manufacturers fleeing to other locations where workers are willing to contribute their labor for lower compensation. As much as the South was delighted to welcome all the textile mill owners who fled New England in the 50s, they also watched in horror as globalization sent most of those jobs overseas.

Since then, the southern states have become industrial powerhouses, thanks in large measure to their anti-union policies. It is one of the reasons why Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo have built factories in the South instead of Michigan, where workers with experience in automobile manufacturing are plentiful. By the same token, the oil, gas, and chemical industries have thrived in the South where state governments have turned a blind eye to horrific amounts of pollution that has turned many parts of those states into “cancer alley” enclaves. And let us not forget that the South has always favored the plantation model that puts wealthy landowners at the top of the social ladder, where they are free to favor or abuse their workers as they see fit.

The “threat to our way of life” mantra is really, at its heart, a plea to go back to the “good old days,” which were decidedly not so good for many in the laboring class. The tension between labor and management is ageless. This kerfuffle over unionization in the South is merely the latest chapter in a long and never-ending story that has played out over centuries and will continue to play out as digital technologies and artificial intelligence create new challenges for workers.

Reduced to its essence, the question is whether those who contribute their brains and brawn to make the products that keep the economy humming are entitled to earn enough money so they can live comfortably without financial anxiety. Should the needs of workers be paramount or should the needs of corporations be paramount? That is really what this vote in Tennessee is all about. For the governors who supposedly represent those workers to put their thumbs on the scale seems an egregious breach of their duty to protect the interests of their constituents.

Ultimately we are watching the age-old tension between labor and capital reshape itself to reflect new realities. What happens in Tennessee this week will have repercussions that echo throughout the US economy.

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