Brooks: Lee, Volkswagen only hurting workers

Volkswagen employees work around vehicles moving down the assembly line at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In an extraordinary act of coercion, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee led an anti-union meeting last Monday at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant. All of the plant's day shift employees were required to attend, but the broader public was shut out. No other politicians were invited and journalists were not allowed in the building.

Audio of the meeting, obtained by Labor Notes, reveals the most powerful politician in the state throwing his support behind Volkswagen management and against the plant's workers.

"Every workplace has challenges, and there are things in your workplace that you wish were different. My experience is that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you're working for me, that's when the environment works the best," the governor stated.

The governor's comments are an unprecedented demonstration of how Southern government officials and corporations work hand-in-hand to bust unions.

"We've had Republican governors using the power of their office to speak out against specific unions before, but nothing quite like this," said John Logan, director of Labor and Employment Relations at San Francisco State University.

If facing down a powerful global corporation and anti-worker politicians wasn't enough, the pro-union workers at Volkswagen also have to contend with an army of corporate front groups, such as the Center for Union Facts, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Southern Momentum. In the space of just a few weeks, those groups have put up websites, made online videos, purchased billboards, penned editorials and taken out newspaper ads.

Why are all these groups involving themselves in this fight? Because the benefits of collective bargaining are so abundantly obvious that companies and their political cronies have to do everything they can to intimidate, harass, confuse and cajole workers out of unionizing.

Unionized workers on average make higher wages, pay less for health care and have more robust pensions. Union workers also enjoy safer and more tolerable working conditions and fewer injuries.

According to Volkswagen's own company newsletter, the average production worker in Chattanooga received a merit-based bonus of $3,682 last year. That isn't even half of the $10,750 profit-sharing bonus that production workers made just up the road at the General Motors plant in Smyrna. The difference? Smyrna GM workers are members of UAW Local 1853 and their bonuses are negotiated collectively.

But wasn't Volkswagen neutral in the 2014 union election? Isn't it an enlightened European employer that believes in protecting the environment and giving workers a voice?

Far from being a socially responsible employer and community member, Volkswagen has shown that it is willing put the public, consumers and its own employees' livelihoods at risk for the sake of maximizing profits. In 2015 the company was busted for installing "defeat devices" on more than 11 million autos - software that enabled the cars to cheat emissions tests while pumping out lethal levels of poison into the atmosphere.

It's little wonder that Volkswagen is now fully embracing the South's anti-worker business environment. The company was more than happy to take the $554 million subsidy package Tennessee offered for the plant to be located here - the largest taxpayer handout given to a foreign automaker at the time.

What did our community get in return? The lowest paying jobs in the auto industry, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Automotive Research. As for the workers who are trying to improve the jobs that Tennesseans paid for, Volkswagen and their political surrogates are displaying nothing but contempt.

Chris Brooks, a Tennessee native, is currently working as a journalist and labor educator for Labor Notes in New York City.