In the Tennessee hills, and apparently in the offices of the United Auto Workers and Volkswagen, there's still more than one way to skin a cat.
UAW, despite its narrow rejection by VW workers last February (53 percent against to 47 percent for), is forming a new local at the Chattanooga VW plant. The union is confident the German automaker will recognize the union if it signs up enough workers at the Chattanooga plant, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said Thursday.
There is a lot at stake: A new SUV assembly line at Enterprise South industrial park and about 1,350 new full-time jobs, the red faces of Tennessee politicians, UAW's survival, VW's strong belief in a works-council culture that puts workers in decision-making partnership with plant management, a new union hybrid that might be palatable all across the South, and Chattanooga's future.
And as usual, there are questions. Unfortunately, there probably is some continuing opposition, too.
Tennessee is a right-to-work state, meaning workers may, but do not have to, join a union to get or keep a job.
Yet this state's Republican-heavy government has made right-to-work seem synonymous with a no-union and cheap-labor industry recruitment claim, one that our tired leaders seem incapable of retooling.
Last February's VW-UAW union vote made this all too clear.
You may recall that Volkswagen had invited the UAW into the plant to help the company form a U.S.-legal works council. Such a council is not a standard union; it's something the Germans term "co-determination" that places workers and management together in a team. The system works well at nearly all of VW's 60-plus plants around the world. But it would only be legal in the United States with a labor union.
VW, to appease state politicians who were especially antsy after the company and UAW said they had enough card signatures to bring in the union, agreed to an employee vote. But the state's politicians couldn't be quiet. It seemed state officials had crafted incentive documents with VW that read in part: "The incentives ... are subject to works council discussions between the state of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the state of Tennessee."
So picture this: VW -- happy that the works council is on track -- prepares to announce a plan to bring the SUV here, and leaks indicate Chattanooga is the favored site. State officials panic that red Tennessee will be seen as welcoming in big unions -- unions that typically support Democrats. What to do? If lawmakers dared to follow through and withhold incentives as outlined in the package contract, how would they and the Republican Party fare against the election year attack ads that would have said "They closed to door to 1,350 new direct VW jobs and hundreds more support jobs ..."
The only hope was to scare VW workers away from a yes vote so that any fallout would not dust the wingtips of political shoes. And when the Grover Norquist-paid billboards and state lawmakers' sabre-rattling didn't seem quite loud enough to achieve the deed, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker swooped in on the eve of the vote.
Corker told the Times Free Press that VW officials (whom he wouldn't name) told him if the workers reject the UAW, the announcement of the new SUV plant would come within about two weeks. The innuendo was clear: Chattanooga would not get the new assembly plant if the union was accepted.
That was February. This is July.
With UAW's announcement Thursday that it is back and planning to stay, and with VW's "no comment," clearly the game is on again. There still has been no announcement about where the SUV will go, so it's fair to assume that VW must really like Chattanooga. It's also fair to assume that UAW still sees plenty -- perhaps growing -- potential here.
So do we.
When UAW's new local has enough signers, our VW will become the first unionized foreign auto plant in the South.
Not only that, but the new U.S. hybrid union -- this works council -- will have been pioneered here.
Here in the new and improved "Dynamo of Dixie."