Brooks: Historic union vote at VW has wide implications

photo Volkswagen emblem

This one vote could change everything.

Later this week, workers at Chattanooga's Volkswagen factory will participate in an election that could be a historical turning point for working people in the United States.

The choice: Whether or not to organize a union.

If Chattanooga workers say "yes" to a union, they will not only be voting for safer working conditions, better wages, and improved benefits, but they will also be opening the door to an entirely new form of worker empowerment in our country: a works council. Built on the principles of co-determination, a works council would provide unionized Chattanooga workers a seat at the table and a voice in the decisions that are central to the future of the company.

Chattanooga is the only VW plant in the world where workers are without a legitimate union and are excluded from the decision-making process provided by a works council. Volkswagen has openly supported the right of their employees to organize a union and have a voice in the workplace because the company sees worker empowerment as a fundamental component to their long-term success.

And VW is right. When skilled and dedicated workers are supported and respected on the job, they are free to do their best work. In workplaces that lack union protections, workers have less autonomy, less security, and less support. Non-union workplaces diminish the quality of work being performed and make workers less likely to invest more in developing their own skills and mastering their craft. On the other hand, unionized workers have a voice in the conditions of their workplace, better pay and benefits, and greater freedom to pursue their own professional development and expand their skills. From teachers to welders to nurses, workers work best when they are treated as assets to be supported and invested in, not as mere cogs to be discarded in a profit-driven race to the bottom.

In response to VW's support of our local workers, rightwing business and political leaders have lashed out against unions, going so far as to publicly compare our workers and their organizations to cancer. Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd said a unionized workforce at VW would be "like a cancer on economic growth in Hamilton County." Commentator Roy Exum wrote that the effort was being led by "a very foolish and cancerous cell of Volkswagen assembly workers." More recently, Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, speaking to local business and political leaders, compared the struggle for union recognition to "inserting a cell into the body" in which "that one cancer cell is going to multiply and kill the body."

This misdiagnosis of working people is the ultimate example of ideological quackery. These snake oil salesmen are engaged in an absurd public relations campaign to paint working families as the villains responsible for wrecking our economy. They are doing this because they are dedicated to promoting and preserving an economic system in which workers have no power and extreme wealth is amassed on a foundation of poverty and insecurity. The basic belief that underpins union solidarity - that workers should be supported and treated with respect - is such a threat to a corporate culture that places Wall Street greed over meeting basic human needs that these rightwing ideologues are using the incendiary rhetoric of cancer to vilify it. To these corporate charlatans, unions represent the threat that Jesus poses to Gordon Gekko: that the golden rule might one day replace the rule of gold.

For far too long, working people have been pushed down and shut out. The results are all around us. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, over half of the 225,000 jobs in Chattanooga are low-wage.

At Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant, workers earn about half the hourly wage of what unionized workers at GM and Ford take home. When benefits are added, our local workers at the tax-payer subsidized VW factory make $40 an hour less than their union counterparts in Germany.

That is why the darling of Wall Street, Steve Moore, came to Chattanooga to call our workers a "cancer" and why other out-of-state, corporate front groups (like the so-called "Center for Worker Freedom") have come here to disrupt the voting process. They want to ensure that corporate profits in the South remain at an all time high while the wages of workers stagnate at a rock-bottom low. Wall Street is terrified that the majority of VW's workers who signed up to organize a union back in September will make good on their pledge and vote "yes" for a union because of the example it might set for the rest of the country: Workers standing together to negotiate for safer working conditions, stronger job protections, union wages, improved benefits and a voice in the work place.

The ability to freely form a union could make a powerful difference in the lives of working families here in Chattanooga. The ability to form a works council could change the way we do business in this country. Volkswagen is willing to provide our local workers an opportunity to change everything.

Now it is all in the hands of our local workers, who have to ask themselves the same question that the late Pete Seeger so famously asked working families all over the world: Which side are you on?

Chris Brooks is a Chattanooga activist. Learn more about supporting local workers at or by emailing

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