The union fuss: This week, the rubber will meet the road

The union fuss: This week, the rubber will meet the road

February 9th, 2014 in Opinion Times

FAST FACT

The nation's union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Plenty of national and local news stories are telling us that much is riding on this week's secret ballot involving more than 1,500 hourly workers at Volkswagen's $1 billion state-of-the-art auto assembly plant here.

Those stories say the future of unionization is at stake. The future of Chattanooga jobs is in the cross-hairs.

As Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Mike Pare writes: "Some see the upcoming vote as historic, and others view it as apocalyptic."

But the reason for the polarization is, as Southerners like to say, about as clear as mud.

By any measure, Volkswagen breathed new life into Chattanooga, creating at least 4,000 new jobs here and churning $50 million a year in tax revenues for the community and state.

Yet when VW - which knows a thing or two about manufacturing - wants to follow the business model that has worked well at its 61 other plants worldwide, some city and state leaders claim the sky is falling.

VW wants its workers, through a formal and U.S.-legal works council, to be partners in determining business practices. In Germany, VW calls it a "philosophy of co-determination."

What a refreshing and common-sense concept in this new top-down, re-Guilded Age America when 1 percent of Americans are reaping in the lion's share of the country's income and when Fortune 500 CEOs make 204 times what regular workers average.

In the United States, such a works council must include a union. So VW invited UAW participation to help create that partnership and make its business better. Making business better, of course, would mean still more jobs and more cash flowing into the local economy.

When UAW announced that a majority of VW's hourly workers had signed union cards, state officials and chamber of commerce leaders turned ashen-faced. And when VW said last week that it would allow a secret ballot vote to appease the anti-union outcry, crazy things began to happen:

A billboard X-ing out the "Auto" of United Auto Workers and replacing the word with "Obama" sprang up on a well-traveled highway near the plant. "The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicans (sic), including Barack Obama," the billboard intones.

Tennessee is a very red state, and even in Chattanooga's urban Hamilton County, Obama received less than 50 percent of the vote in 2012.

Meanwhile, former Hamilton County Mayor Ramsey, who worked hard to get VW here, held a news conference to urge workers to reject the union. Ramsey, who also for a time was deputy governor for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, said unionizing VW will hurt efforts to recruit more auto suppliers here.

"In fact, many suppliers have already said they will not locate close to the plant if the UAW organizes it, and the further [away] they are, the higher VW's costs will be," he said. Ramsey declined to name the companies, saying that the state doesn't identify businesses it's recruiting.

Haslam, too, has spoken out publicly against the UAW, as has U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor who heavily recruited the German automaker. The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce also has claimed a union would mean no more job growth here.

This week, however, the lawmakers and chamber crowd have gone quiet. Perhaps they realized that the mere presence of a union isn't such a job hindrance. Our firefighters, police officers, teachers and postal workers have unions, as do UPS and airplane pilots and truck drivers. And if UAW is voted in here, will those prospective auto suppliers refuse to come here to sell parts? Will they refuse to sell parts to any of VW's other 61 auto plants worldwide? Or to any other automakers elsewhere in the South? Will they not ship their goods in the trucks and planes operated by union workers? Will Tennesseans not buy cars?

Maybe the billboard is a clue. In this very red state where "liberal" is something of a four-letter word, maybe partisan politics is what all this fuss about a union vote really is about.

Unions typically don't support politicians who don't value co-determination.