Hiltzik: Another union victory in Chattanooga

Until Friday, the phrase “union victory at Chattanooga” could mean only one thing: the defeat of a Confederate army by troops under American Grant in the Battle of Chattanooga in late November 1863.

No longer. On Friday, the United Auto Workers scored a decisive victory at a Volkswagen plant in ChattanoogaTennessee, when workers voted overwhelmingly to organize the UAW.

The vote seems like a milestone. It was the UAW's first win at an auto plant in the Deep South, following two losses — in 2014 and 2019 — at the same plant. It comes in the wake of the UAW's success in negotiating impressive new contracts with the Big Three domestic automakers in October.

The real importance of these elections does not only lie in the organization of this factory. It is that it announces that the South is open to unions.

– Labor historian Erik Loomis

The vote opens the door for more voting and organizing campaigns across the region, where political leaders have kept unions weak in part through anti-union right-to-work laws—all fourteen states in the Deep South, as well as twelve others, have those laws. Next on the schedule is a vote by 5,000 workers at a Mercedes plant in Alabama, which will take place from May 13 to 17.

“The real importance of this election is not just the organization of this factory,” says labor historian Erik Loomis. “It is that it announces that the South is open to unions. This is the biggest struggle for the American labor movement in more than a century. A serious breakthrough in the South is now possible.”

The vote also represents a strong rebuke to the Republican Party's political establishment in the South. It turns the history of the regional organization of car workers upside down. It may be recalled that in 2014, the Republican Party in Tennessee did everything in its power to discourage Chattanooga plant workers from organizing with the UAW.

VW was willing to accept union membership, with a view to replicating the labor management 'works councils' common among manufacturing companies in its home country of Germany. (“Volkswagen views its corporate culture of works councils as a competitive advantage,” a member of the VW board of directors had told the Associated Press.)

In response, then-Gov. Bill Haslam threatened the company with retaliation, stating that Tennessee would withdraw incentives for Volkswagen if it voted in favor of the UAW.

Then-Republican Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, flew down from Washington to make an almost certainly misleading claim that VW executives had “assured” him that the company would build a new SUV production line at the plant. open – if the workers would turn around. the UAW down. A local VW executive disputed that.

With shocking cynicism, Corker adopted the language of political resistance to discourage workers from voting in the union, stating that if the UAW won the vote, “it will be something we can overcome – we will overcome.”

I marveled then that the ghost of Pete Seeger, who had turned a few traditional gospel songs into the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome,” didn't rise from the grave and impale Corker with a bolt of lightning.

Corker also twisted another protest slogan into an attack on workers by declaring: “the whole world is watching.”

The 2014 organizational campaign failed by a vote of 626 to 712. After the UAW filed a protest with the National Labor Relations Board over the interference of Haslam, Corker and their accomplices, the 2019 vote was held. It was another defeat for the union, but smaller: 48% of votes in favor, compared to 46% in 2014.

This time the votes were 2,628 in favor and 985 against – a majority of 72.7%.

Early signs that Chattanooga workers might vote for a union didn't stop Republican politicians from putting their thumbs on the scale. In a joint statement Issued the day before voting began, Tennessee's current GOP governor, Bill Lee, and the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas denounced what they hypocritically called “the union campaign driven by misguided information and scare tactics that the UAW has brought into the organization. our states.”

The governors noted that all three automakers that signed the October contracts with the UAW had since announced layoffs. That's true, but attributing the layoffs to the union contracts was a lie: In both cases, the companies linked them to an unexpected slowdown in the electric vehicle market.

What the governors failed to mention — an inadvertent oversight, you can be sure — several foreign, non-union automakers have factories in the South, such as Mercedes, Tesla and BMW, all of which have been targeted by the UAW , also announced layoffs.

Perhaps even more relevant, in the wake of the Big Three's contract deals, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Subaru have all announced raises of as much as 11% for their workers – a clear demonstration that higher wages at unionized companies are spilling over into the non-union sector. of an industry. All of these companies except Subaru have factories in states represented by the governors who issued the declaration; Subaru's only U.S. factory is in Lafayette, Indiana.

“In America,” the governors wrote, “we respect our workforce and don't have to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch.” They added: “When employees have a direct relationship with their employers, it creates a more positive working environment. They can stand up for themselves and what is important to them, without outside influence.”

Students of anti-union rhetoric will recognize this narrative as drawn directly from the playbook of staunchly anti-union employers like Starbucks, including the claims that union representation is detrimental to the smooth running of a workplace and that unions interfere with the employee-employer. relation.

As virtually any experienced employee knows, “direct contact” between the rank and file and management almost never works to the employees' advantage unless they have the leverage that comes from collective action. The governors' claim that workers can successfully “stand up for themselves” is almost pure myth.

It may also be that the governors have failed to read the room, as the saying goes. “The demographics of the South are different than they were 10 years ago,” Loomis told me. “More Latinos and more people moving from the North have transformed the South overall – the shift in politics in Georgia due to Atlanta's expansive growth is one example. Charlotte has also become a huge destination for young black professionals. The South is simply not as different from the rest of the country as it used to be.”

Nor should one overlook the marked change in labor policy at the federal level. Joe Biden's status as possibly the most pro-labor president in American history has been widely noted. He is the only president to walk a union picket line, as he did during the UAW contract negotiations; he remains loyal to Julie Su, his candidate for Minister of Labor, despite fierce opposition from Big Business; and its National Labor Relations Board has fulfilled its role as guardian of collective bargaining rights.

Whether NLRB oversight of the Chattanooga vote hampered the company's efforts to undermine the vote is not clear, but it could not have done any harm.

The UAW's success in contract negotiations could emerge as a powerful argument in favor of organizing in other auto plants. Some defeats may lie in wait in the South, but further successes may also follow.

It is worth recalling what happened after Grant's victory at Chattanooga in 1863. After the nearly simultaneous Union victories in July 1863 at Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa., Chattanooga pulled the noose for the Confederacy tightened and opened the door for Sherman's march to the Confederacy. sea ​​in 1864 and the end of the Confederacy.

Last week's vote in Chattanooga could be an equivalent turning point in the long war for workers' rights and welfare.

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