Union Appeals Vote At Tennessee VW Plant

Originally published on February 25, 2014 9:45 am

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is appealing the vote that didn’t go its way at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The union has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to look into the vote that resulted in a close split, 712 to 626, against UAW representation.

The UAW maintains that interference by Republican Sen. Bob Corker and other politicians swayed the vote by saying the plant would get more projects if it voted not to unionize.

Corker responded with a statement on Friday, saying:

The workers at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant spoke very clearly last week, so we are disappointed the UAW is ignoring their decision and has filed this objection. Unfortunately, I have to assume that today’s action may slow down Volkswagen’s final discussions on the new SUV line. This complaint affirms the point many of us have been making: that the UAW is only interested in its own survival and not the interests of the great employees at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen facility nor the company for which they work.

Bob King, president of the UAW, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to make his case.

Interview Highlights: Bob King

On the importance of unionizing foreign auto companies

“In today’s world, whether auto industry jobs are going to be decent middle class jobs depends on the workers in those facilities across this country — and we’re even working on globally — but workers standing together. The only way that auto workers got the pay that they did, the vacations, the retirement, the holidays, the healthcare benefits, was because they used their collective voice… The only way that the American auto industry is going to stay a middle class-creating industry is if workers come together.”

On shrinking union membership

“What’s exciting to me and what’s positive to me is America’s waking up to the tremendous inequality in income and wealth in this country. And more and more people are understanding without a strong labor movement, you don’t have a strong middle class. People understand that when we bargain for better wages or healthcare or vacations or holidays that not only do union members benefit but so do nonunion members because that then became a standard in the community.”

Guest

  • Bob King, president of the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, better known as the United Auto Workers. He tweets @UAWPresident.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. And the United Auto Workers union is appealing the vote that it lost at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this month. Workers at the plant voted against joining the UAW by a slim margin, 712 to 626. Had the vote passed, it would've been the first steps towards organizing a works council at the plant, that's how Volkswagen's plants in Germany are organized, and it gives workers a voice in management.

It would also have been a big deal for the UAW, which has staked its survival on unionizing foreign-owned auto plants in the South. The UAW has asked the National Labor Relations Board to investigate, contending that interference by Republican Senator Bob Corker and other politicians swayed the vote. Corker had told workers that if they voted no, VW would choose to build a new SUV at the plant.

We're joined now by Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers union. Welcome.

BOB KING: Thank you very much, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So big of a setback for you, for the UAW, was this vote in Chattanooga?

KING: You know, I think it was most importantly a setback for the workers and for workers having a full voice and a setback in some ways for American labor management relationships. What a tremendous opportunity to participate in a works council system, where workers sit down on an equal basis with management on a daily basis, and they work together through the works council on health and safety and productivity and quality.

We're disappointed. We're certainly not giving up. We're going to continue to support the workers in Chattanooga who want representation, who want to be part of the global works council. So it definitely is a setback, but that's what we look at it as.

HOBSON: But you have said that the future of the UAW depends on unionizing these foreign auto plants, across the South especially.

KING: To clarify that, what I would say, in today's world, whether auto industry jobs are going to be decent middle-class jobs depends on the workers in those facilities across this country, and then we're even working globally, but workers standing together.

The only way that auto workers got the pay that they did, the vacations, the retirement, the holidays, the health care benefits, was because they used their collective voice to sit down with management and say, hey, we want our fair share of the success of this company. And we achieved it. And if you've got half the workers making lower wages, or you've got companies that are hiring all temporary or permanent temporaries, I would call them, that hurts every worker in the auto industry.

The only way that the American auto industry is going to stay a middle-class-creating industry is if workers come together and make sure that they help the company to be successful that they work at, but also get their fair share of the success of that company. And that's why the works council opportunity was so exciting in Volkswagen.

I mean, we do that a lot in American labor right now, but this was a step further in that direction of collaboration and working for joint success.

HOBSON: Although many people would say, and have said, and this was one of the big arguments against unionizing the plant in Chattanooga, that giving workers all of those benefits was one of the problems in Detroit, that that's what sunk a couple of the major automakers there.

KING: Well, you know, I don't know if you heard Harley Shaiken. He makes a really important point. Between '06 and 2010, Ford Motor Company I think made $38 billion. And Chrysler, General Motors, had many tremendously successful years with the packages they had negotiated.

What we all did not respond quickly enough to, and I'll take equal credit and equal blame with management, to the foreign competition. And our country, less than any other country, protects their home industries. So we did not respond quickly enough to the competition. But we are today.

And so we're showing that management and labor working together is a critical factor in success, and that's what Volkswagen says; second-largest, most and highest shareholder value-adding auto company in the world says that their success is because they work together through the works councils and in codetermination with the workforce.

That's an exciting opportunity, and we're not going to back away from that. We're going to continue to work to create that opportunity for the Chattanooga workforce.

HOBSON: Well, then, why did they reject it?

KING: You know, you saw a lot of it. There were threats put against Volkswagen as a company, saying we're not going to give you incentives. Senator Corker came out and said if you vote no, I'll guarantee you get a new product. You had all kinds of cultural stuff going on. You had billboards that said the UAW will take away your guns. The UAW members are hunters all over our union. It was so ridiculous.

But people who didn't have other information voted with the wrong information. And I think the fear and intimidation was the worst part of it. But I don't want to discount, either, the kind of cultural attacks, unfair, untrue cultural attacks that they made on the UAW and what we stand for.

HOBSON: Well, you have raised objections about what Senator Corker said before the vote with the National Labor Relations Board.

KING: Absolutely.

HOBSON: What makes you think, though, that you'll win there?

KING: Well, I think there are some early cases. This hasn't happened in a long time. But what the National Labor Relations Act was supposed to do was set up a laboratory condition where workers would decide if they wanted to be - have representation or not and wanted to form their local union or not, and there would not be threats or promises by either side.

Senator Corker and the others who made threats against Volkswagen or making workers believe they wouldn't get the product if they voted for the union, we think that that destroyed the laboratory conditions that the NLRB was set up to provide, and there are some early case law that would support that.

HOBSON: You think that's why people voted against the union?

KING: Well, we had a majority. We had a majority certified by an independent attorney, and it was only - 44 votes would've changed the outcome of the election. So when it's that close, of a workforce of 1,500, I think it's really clear that what Senator Corker did and what others in that state did was wrong, was morally wrong for me, and I think the NLRB will say that it destroyed the conditions for a fair election.

HOBSON: Now if you look at this in the big picture of unions in general, it is not just the UAW that lost a vote here. Union membership, as you know, is much lower today than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago in this country. The UAW is a third of the size it was back in the '70s. Isn't the trend moving against the tide that you're hoping for here?

KING: Well yeah, but you know what? What's exciting to me and what's positive to me is America's waking up to the tremendous inequality in income and wealth in this country. And more and more people are understanding without a strong labor movement, you don't have a strong middle class.

People understand that when we bargain for better wages or health care or vacations or holidays that not only do union members benefit but so do nonunion members because that then became a standard in the community. You look at charts that many different people have done that show as you show less and less workers in unions, you see the middle class sliding downward, that their income gets stagnated, that they lose health care, they don't have the defined benefit pension plans they used to have and even issues, other issues of social metrics.

And what funding is there for schools? How expensive are colleges? As union membership goes down, and there's not as powerful a voice for working people in society in general, the whole society, if you believe in a middle class, you believe in a democracy, it's hurt by the fact that unions are in demise.

And so we're very committed in the UAW and with our sisters and brothers in the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win movement, we're all committed to rebuild the labor movement because we believe in America. We believe in democracy. But we believe in having a middle class. You don't have a middle class or a democracy without a strong union.

Look at Germany. Look at Italy. Look at the places that have turned around and built democracies; in Chile or in Brazil, and look at what's happened to the middle class there. It's growing and expanding, the opposite direction of what's happening here. And a major factor is strong unions in those countries.

HOBSON: Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers union. Mr. King, thanks so much for joining us.

KING: Thank you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, how important do you think unions are to creating a strong middle class? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You can send us a tweet @hereandnow. I'm @jeremyhobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.