Us Against Them: The Volkswagen Organizing Campaign

Volkswagen Union Organizing Two days before the NLRB counted the votes to determine whether a majority of the 1550 hourly employees of Volkswagen USA’s Chattanooga vehicle assembly plant would vote to be represented by the UAW, I was asked during an interview to make a prediction about the outcome of this much watched and anticipated union representation election.  I was asked to give my honest opinion on whether or not a majority of the American employees of this German corporation that constructed its only American facility in the South would vote to become part of one of the most influential and successful unions in American history. 

My response was, I NEVER predict the outcome of a union representation election no matter how positive, upbeat and seemingly supportive the workers are, whether or not workers signed 80% of the authorization cards, whether or not management was neutral (as in the case of VW).   I was not being evasive or unresponsive by not making a prediction, rather my reticence was based on my experience and the fact that workers that participate in union organizing campaigns are generally unaware of exactly what they will be confronted with.  Workers don’t know that they will have to choose between an employer that pays better than average in an economy where jobs are scarce or a union which has been blamed for the demise of Detroit, wanting to take your guns and, of course, supporting President Obama.

Most workers’ first exposure to union organizing initiates them into the world of “us and them;” capital and labor; order givers and order takers; democrats and republicans.  Most workers would rather channel their “us and them” moments into basketball, football and NASCAR, with a little “us and them” in the woods during hunting season.  When workers are viciously confronted with the weapons of the war on workers, the paid union-busting law firm and their cadres of support groups, anti-union propaganda, billboards and television ads, they are no longer sitting comfortably in front of their televisions, in the stadium or tree stand.  No, management wants them to know that “they” (management) are right and that a union is just a big intrusion into the relationship the company has with its workforce and that without a union there will not be “us and them” – there will be just “us.”

When workers organize they are invariable required to attend “captive audience meetings” and forced to listen to all of the nasty things that management has to say about unions and then the workers are asked to decide – is it going to be “them” (the union) or is going to be “us” (the company… and you workers too!).  They are required to watch videos of some staged scene of arson or some other heinous act to show just how evil unions are.  They look at pictures of shuttered factories in Detroit (Oh no, not Detroit!) and are told “the union” is to blame and the same will happen in Chattanooga or anywhere else if they vote for the union.

Management makes it their business to exploit any weakness and tell the workers that all those things union organizers (a.k.a. union thugs) have been promising are ALL lies.  “The union is from the outside and they are only interested in one thing – your DUES money.”  “Well,” says the timid worker that has never been confronted with so many “facts” about things they never thought much about, “My co-worker says we will have a contract and then we can only be terminated for cause and we negotiate over how many temporary workers are hired and a whole bunch more.”

Management says, “We just showed you the facts about the union and how it only wants your dues money and how a union will disrupt our cozy relationship.  And, by the way, the company has a lot of options when it comes to where they invest their money and some of these decisions are made based on how well our workers and managers get along.”

Management continues, “The company has already announced plans for major investments and our plant is competing on a global scale for investment and we just want to make sure that we are in the best competitive position going forward.  If you vote for a union everything will be different and a union will cause problems for the company.”

Management concludes, “Have a nice day and thanks for coming and thanks for what you do for the company.”

So, there ya go, your first scaled-down, watered-down union avoidance captive audience meeting at your favorite multi-national corporate-owned facility.  When workers leave such a meeting they are usually thinking, “Holy crap! I get the picture” and their response is typically either: “I better do what management says and not support or vote for that damn union,” or “I don’t trust management no matter what they say and with a union at least I would have a chance to have a voice on the job and some job protections.”

Volkswagen Union Organizing

United Auto Workers President Bob King speaks to the media after workers at a Volkswagen factory voted against union representation in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Friday, Feb. 14, 2104. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Yep, that’s the way it seems to fall when you get into the psychology of it – the “which side are you on” part of it.  Did you grow up in Appalachia where the ONLY hope your family had was for your daddy to join the United Mine Workers union? Did your parents have a picture of ol’ John L. Lewis and Jesus in your company-owned shack?  Then hell yes you are going to be union and you are going to be loud and proud about it.  And those folks that don’t have it in their heart yet, you will work on them too because they just don’t know what being union is about.

Our management supporter, someone who came off a farm, worked sun up to sun down helping his father and family make a living on the land had never been in a union.  Never even been to Detroit.  No one in their family was ever in a union.  In their mind the union is a foreign element.  In church they preach that there is a master and a servant and you are either or.  If you are a servant, a worker working for a wage, you listen to the boss and do things to the best of your ability and you don’t complain. You don’t join a union and bite the hand that feeds you.   I could go further into preaching against unions from the pulpit, but you get the picture.

Odds are that no matter how many workers in a bargaining unit say they are going to vote union, it ends up being a whole lot different when the votes are cast.  And, since it is a secret ballot election you are not supposed to be able to figure out who lied.  When a certain percent say they are going to vote for representation and the vote is lost by a much wider margin than the authorization card count, it usually becomes clear that bunches of those workers you counted as supporters did not tell the truth about how they were going to vote, or more likely changed their minds at the last minute out of fear of losing their job and the fear and the belief that Chattanooga will become the next Detroit (Oh no, not Detroit again!).

Now, do you think these workers, those that work hard to support their families simply don’t want to be in a union, don’t want to have a contract, don’t want better wages and benefits?  Of course they do.  Then why do you suppose so many of them end up voting against union representation?

To understand why workers so often vote against union representation when they were expected to do the opposite, you need to appreciate the predicament in which most workers find themselves. They have a job when a lot of folks don’t – and in the case of VW they have a better paying job than they would otherwise have.  Under that scenario the workers have to be risk adverse and are therefore willing to work for what is being offered and are unwilling to jeopardize their job just because a union might be able to improve their wages, working conditions, benefits and standard of living.  It’s like the old bird in a hand mentality and it becomes relatively easy to convince folks that a low-paying job, a factory job or any job is better than no job at all.

But that is not how it is supposed to be in America.  The National Labor Relations Act says that workers have the right to vote for or against union representation free from fear, coercion, intimidation and reprisal.  Yes folks, workers are supposed to be provided with the facts about the benefits of organizing a union at their workplace in an environment free from fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation.

Volkswagen Union Organizing But we all know that this is not how it works in reality!  It’s like Rodney Dangerfield in the movie “Back to School” where he criticizes the business professor for his conception of a factory that exists in theory but not reality, which prompts Rodney to ask, “Where does this factory exist – fantasy land?”  Yes, where does the so-called laboratory conditions exist in this country where workers are free to organize without fear, intimidation, threats, coercion, retribution, terminations, etc.?  It must be in fantasy land because in every, and I mean every, organizing campaign that I have participated, observed or supported, the outcome of the election is usually impossible to determine even if the overwhelming majority signed authorization cards.

Why do you think that over 30,000 unfair labor practice charges are filed each year against employers over the conduct of representation elections?  Yes, 30,000 is a huge number and indicates the degree to which employers will bend the law, skirt the law and downright violate the law just to prevent their workers from having a voice on the job, the right to collectively bargain, better wages and benefits and not be fired for expressing their opinions and concerns.

Getting back to VW.  There were great expectations that the workers at the Chattanooga VW factory would appreciate and be motivated by the fact that the employer did not engage in an overt anti-union campaign and had in fact provided the UAW with a fair opportunity to organize VW without interference.  VW has a long and cooperative experience with unions in Germany and in every other country in the world where facilities works councils are established and play an important role in VW’s business model and their success – every country except of course China and the U.S.

Volkswagen Union Organizing

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker speaks to reporters in about the defeat of the United Auto Workers in a three-day election at the Volkswagen plant in the city. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Under such circumstances you would expect the workers at VW to support the company and its desire to establish a works council at its only U.S. assembly plant.  But this is America and if the company is not going to be anti-union than heck, the National Right to Work Committee, Grover Norquist and his group and a slew of others are more than ready to jump in – even if the employer doesn’t want their “help.”

If the traditional union-busters aren’t enough to stop union momentum, then line up some of the most anti-union politicians in America like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam so they can have their turn at scaring the heck out of every VW worker with threats of plant closings, loss of production, loss of new job opportunities, loss to “outsiders,” combined with a paid propaganda campaign with racial overtones, lies about the UAW, lies about Detroit, lies about the big three automakers, lies about unions, etc.  and you have a witches brew of union haters and baiters willing to do almost anything to interject their vitriol into this organizing campaign and cause enough workers to change their minds and vote against union representation.  With a majority of those voting required to “win” an union representation election, our union-hating friends know they don’t have to sway the entire workforce, just enough to deny a majority.

You get the picture.  Here in America if the employer is going to be neutral in an organizing campaign then some of us real Americans are going to show them how it’s done, just like in every other workplace in America where workers attempt to exercise their right to organization and collective bargaining.  Here in America if you are a business you are EXPECTED to be anti-union.  Here in America if you are a business and you are simply not anti-union enough then someone, some group, will show you how it’s done here.  If the employer isn’t going to instill fear in its workforce, if the company isn’t going to intimidate their workforce and threaten them with the loss of jobs and future jobs, then someone has to come in and pick up the ball.

In the case of VW it was the Right to Work for Less Committee, Grover Norquist and his organization and Tennessee Senator Corker who repeatedly lied about what would happen if VW workers organized.  In many, many cases workers succumb to the fear campaign and end up voting against their own interests as they become convinced that to have a job is better than having no job at all and to have a union is to jeopardize the whole thing.

But, as the saying goes, it ain’t over until it’s over.  Yes, in most organizing campaigns it takes several attempts before workers finally vote for union representation.  If you look back in history it took many years to organize workers in the mass production and related industries.

bill londrigan

This first effort to organize VW just hit a speed bump.  The workers will soon realize they have been lied to and in a year from now the workers will realize they made a big mistake.  In a year from now, when the UAW takes another shot at organizing the VW workers, those that voted no might just see the light.  They may finally have the opportunity to vote in a free and fair election without the outside pressure witnessed in the first election.

And yet, in spite of the fact that unions have a better chance to organize during the second election, I would still NOT predict the outcome of the second or even third or fourth elections since the anti-union forces present in the VW campaign will certainly not play dead and will resist with everything they have.  Hopefully, by then the VW workers will have come to understand “which side they are on!” and a majority will vote for the UAW!

Bill Londrigan

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Published by the LA Progressive on March 19, 2014
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About Bill Londrigan

Bill Londrigan has been president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO since 1999.

Comments

  1. Lauren Steiner says:

    Sharon, can we have a bio on the author?

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