Over the last century, the American middle class grew - thanks in no small part to labor unions formed to represent the interests of the workers who drive our economy forward. They have been an important ally in the fight to ensure everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a fair shot to succeed.
But in recent years, the opportunity gap between hardworking Americans and the CEOs they often work for has exploded, making organized labor as important as ever.
To preserve the middle class for our children, we must respect the right to organize. But at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant that right is not being adequately respected by outside groups.
The United Auto Workers is trying to help Volkswagen and its workers succeed together by retaining jobs, improving quality and efficiency, and protecting workplace safety.
Volkswagen and UAW are working together to redefine American labor-management relations for the better by creating a "works council" at the Chattanooga plant like those present at most other VW plants. It would be revolutionary for the manufacturing industry, fostering more collaboration between management and workers on everything from plant rules to working hours and leave policies.
And it would help bring new jobs to Tennessee. Everyone involved -- Tennessee, Volkswagen and our citizens -- would benefit. Before a works council can be created, though, the plant must first have a union.
Unfortunately, some deep-pocketed, Washington-based special interest groups have stepped in to block that from happening. In recent months, outside anti-labor groups have attempted to discourage workers at the VW plant from joining the UAW, even though Volkswagen itself is not opposing unionization. These groups are trying to start a fight that no one -- not VW, not Chattanooga, and not the workers -- wants.
Anti-union groups have their own interests at heart; they're not looking out for Tennesseans. The decision to create a works council and choose union representation belongs to the workers, and no one should interfere with that right. I hope these outside groups are unsuccessful in swaying the outcome of the VW election later this week.
With union representation, Chattanooga workers will participate in workplace discussions on safety, job security and efficiency. And they can join the VW Global Works Council to have a say in corporate policies as well -- something that could lead to more manufacturing jobs here in our country. But today, as one of the few VW assembly facilities in the world without a seat on the VW Global Works Council, Chattanooga doesn't have that opportunity.
Over many years, the UAW has demonstrated its ability to work with business, communities and government to benefit each. They played a leading role in re-opening GM's Spring Hill plant, which the company closed after declaring bankruptcy. This resulted in investment for expanded production of more than $350 million in Tennessee, a big win for our state, the plant's workers and the middle class.
If we claim to be a society that values a strong middle class and fairness in the workplace, we must also respect employers that allow workers to choose representation in a free, fair environment. In allowing its employees to expand their role in the workplace, Volkswagen has taken an important stance that Americans should expect from companies that seek to do business here.
Manufacturing jobs are the backbone of a strong middle class, and the right to organize must be respected if we want to grow more of them. With union representation, safety and health improves, hard-working employees make decent livings and everyone works together to achieve mutual success for the region, the company and the workers.
The right to choose representation belongs to workers, but the benefits come back to all of us.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., represents the 9th Congressional District.