on Friday we may know the outcome of one of the most closely watched National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections in years. Approximately 1,550 workers at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are voting on representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW previously has won elections in several US-Japanese joint ventures, but a pro-union vote in Chattanooga would provide its first victory in a wholly owned foreign auto company and would create the first employee works council in the United States. The election outcome is uncertain, largely because GOP politicians and anti-union organizations are fighting unionization and the proposed works council to the bitter end.By late
Three aspects of the VW campaign make it stand out from most other union elections.
First, in stark contrast with the usual behavior of employers in US union elections, VW is remaining neutral and allowing its employees a free choice on unionization. In the rest of the world, the company recognizes the benefits of a cooperative and productive relationship with its unionized workforces. Every one of its 61 major facilities outside of the United States and China has a union and a works council. If the Chattanooga workers vote for union representation, the plant almost certainly will get the nation's first works council and US workers will be represented for the first time on VW's Global Works Council. For several decades, works councils have been an important feature of employment relations systems in several European countries, where they have helped foster cooperation and flexibility between workers at management at the enterprise level. American workers also soon may enjoy the opportunity to participate in this innovative form of employee voice.
Second, Republican politicians in Tennessee repeatedly have attempted to pressure the company into fighting the UAW - without success - and to intimidate workers into voting against the union. Sen. Bob Corker complained that VW's decision not to fight the union was "almost beyond belief." When state officials first recruited VW to Tennessee, one GOP politician explained, respecting workers' choice on unionization, even if that meant bringing in the UAW, was "not part of the deal." Another state representative stated that a vote for the union would not be in the "best interests of Tennessee." Republicans might cancel future financial incentives, even though this would likely result in Volkswagen expanding production in Puebla, Mexico, rather than in Chattanooga. GOP politicians, it seems, would sooner destroy jobs in their own state than allow workers to choose UAW representation. Republicans in the South have an extensive record of using the bully pulpit of their office to intimidate pro-union workers. But their outrageous behavior here has taken political interference in a union election at a private company to an entirely different level.
Finally, the most notable feature of the VW campaign has been the unprecedented campaign of intimidation by shadowy anti-union organizations. Right-wing activists, including Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers, are furious that VW management has not attempted to pressure workers to vote "no." So they have stepped into the breach. Ludicrously misnamed organizations such as the Workplace Fairness Institute, Worker Freedom Institute and Center for Worker Freedom have attempted to transform the union election into a sleazy political campaign: They have suggested that UAW-represented auto companies are bankrupt, when in fact they are thriving, with Ford posting record profits; they have told workers that unionization would "imperil the fate of their employer," when in fact VW would be delighted to have a cooperative relationship with unionized workers within the plant; and they have spread ludicrous right-wing fantasies, such as the union "wants your guns." No other democratic country has organizations such as these - peddling outright falsehoods - that are dedicated to undermining workers' right to choose a union.
In the course of the ill-tempered anti-union campaign, the union has been denounced as "black-shirted thugs," the "vilest of cancers" and even "Ichneumon wasp larvae." But many of the Chattanooga autoworkers understand what is really going on here. Writing in a local newspaper, one VW worker stated: "What I really don't understand is why our employer is remaining neutral and respecting our right to make our own choices, but outside groups aren't." It is a terrific question - one that those spouting hatred toward the union and attempting to intimidate the workers should be forced to answer. Unfortunately, one of the most significant NLRB elections in decades has been tainted by blatant efforts to coerce workers by GOP politicians and anti-union organizations.