Growing up in Tennessee, all Justin King ever heard about labor unions was that they were bad.
After three years at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, King, 30, said this week he will vote to join the United Auto Workers – and the prospect of a union win has officials across the South on edge.
Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has tried to talk Volkswagen out of going along, warning that the vote will discourage other companies from investing in the state where only 6.1 percent of the work force was in a union in 2013.
“What I’ve told them is our concerns are your long-term objectives,” Haslam told the editorial board of the Tennessean newspaper Feb. 5 about his talks with Volkswagen. “You’ve been saying you need to cut the costs of producing the vehicle and you want a better supply network close to you. And I’m not certain how the UAW helps either one of those.”
For decades, the South has been able to capitalize on its lower wages and lack of labor unions to lure companies and jobs from northern states. The UAW vote, which would make the Volkswagen plant the first foreign-owned car factory in the U.S. with a labor union, threatens to change that, and both sides are working to steer the vote their way.
Outside lobby groups, including one tied to anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, have entered the fray, using billboard advertising and editorials in local newspapers to build opposition to the UAW. Labor advocates say a victory for the UAW will boost efforts to organize other companies and perhaps begin to reverse a decades-long trend in declining membership.
“It could very well be a game changer,” Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview.
Under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board, about 1,550 hourly employees at the Chattanooga plant will vote this week on whether to join the UAW after a majority of employees there signed authorization cards. The vote follows an agreement between the UAW and Volkswagen to negotiate the formation of a German-style works council, an employee body common at most large German companies to resolve labor disputes. None exists in the U.S.
Union membership in Tennessee grew by 25 percent in 2013, the most of any state with 31,000 new members over 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, only 6.1 percent of the state’s workforce was in unions in 2013 compared with 11.3 percent nationally.
High unemployment remains a challenge for union organizing in the U.S. South, according to Merle Black, professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta. Manufacturing work typically pays better than other jobs, making employees reluctant to confront managers wary of union campaigning.
The prospect of forming a German-style works council is unlikely to kick off a wave of union successes in the South, Black said.
“They don’t want to be Germans,” Black said in an interview. “What works in Germany doesn’t carry over here at all. That’d be a hard sell in most of the South.”
Whatever the result, the election will be remembered for the efforts of “well-financed, anti-union groups” to influence the outcome, according to Lowell Turner, director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Center for Worker Freedom, a project of Norquist’s anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, has put up 13 billboards in Chattanooga warning of the evils of unions.
Politicians such as Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have also weighed in, warning of negative economic consequences if the plant is unionized.
Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who helped negotiate the incentive package that lured Volkswagen to the city, declined to comment ahead of this week’s vote, according to his spokeswoman. The senator has scheduled a news conference today in the city.
Last year, Corker said that it was “almost beyond belief” that Volkswagen would allow the UAW into the plant.
“They will become the object of many business school studies – and I’m a little worried could become a laughingstock in many ways – if they inflict this wound,” Corker told the Associated Press in September. Under U.S labor law, Volkswagen could have recognized the UAW after a majority of employees signed union authorization cards, Sebastian Patta, Volkswagen vice president for human resources, said in a Feb. 8 statement.
“Outside political groups won’t divert us from the work at hand: innovating, creating jobs, growing, and producing great automobiles,” he said. “Our employees are free to discuss and state their opinions at the plant and to distribute campaign materials, including flyers and other literature, irrespective of whether they are in favor of or against a union.”
When Volkswagen started operations in Chattanooga in 2011, managers from Germany discussed German-style works councils with their U.S. counterparts, King said. Those discussions led to talks among U.S. employees and mark the start of the organizing campaign.
“I grew up down here and I’ve never heard anything but that unions were bad,” said King, the assembly line worker. “It wasn’t until I started doing the research that I came to the conclusion that they are not in deed responsible for every economic disaster . . .in the last 100 years.”