Pro-union? Anti-union? Chattanooga hears it all on eve of UAW election

Seven years after Matt Sexton left Ohio for a job on the Volkswagen car assembly line in East Tennessee, he faces a question. Should he vote to join the UAW?

A parade of Tennessee politicians, pro-union loyalists and anti-union faithful have made a din across the southern Appalachians, trying to either woo or warn off Sexton and 1,700 other people employed by VW in Chattanooga. All the VW autoworkers are pondering the same issue: Is now the time to join the country’s largest industrial union?

What’s happening could reverberate for years across the Southern auto belt — a region underpinned by 10 foreign owned, union-free vehicle assembly plants within five hours of Nashville.

According to industrial relations scholar Gary Chaison, the United Auto Workers success or failure in Chattanooga “might hold the key to the expansion and future of the union movement” in America.

“The UAW has to prove how effective and militant it is by organizing outside of its core jurisdiction — not just carmakers in the American North like Detroit, but the big new Tennessee plant of a German carmaker like VW,’’ said Chaison, co-author of “Unions and Legitimacy,” a recent book tracing organized labor’s decline.

With the stakes high, billboards and advertisements have proliferated in Chattanooga, offering pro- and antiunion views. No one is quite sure what autoworkers in the German company’s only U.S. car plant will decide. While the plant employs about 3,200 including temporary workers, only the permanent workforce will vote. The election will begin June 12 and wrap up June 14, with the results expected to be released by June 15.

Union loyalists have been painted as anti-VW. This group includes Center for VW Facts, an organization from outside the state that says VW’s corrupt culture was apparent in the diesel emissions scandal. VW faithful have been called anti-worker. This group includes Center for Union Facts, led by Washington lobbyist Richard Berman saying the UAW is corrupt. At the same time, a trio of industrial- state senators have assailed VW executives, saying they appear to have resisted unionization in the plant even though union-like work councils are normal in German factories.

Through it all threads a single worry articulated by the faithful camp — might VW close down if the UAW wins?

Sexton, 38, who said he once washed Audi luxury cars at a dealership in Portsmouth, Ohio, counts on his $20an-hour job to help support himself, his wife and their baby.

“If that plant shuts down, I’ll be out of a job,” Sexton said.

Mike Elk, who moved to Chattanooga for a spell to write a book about the UAW-VW labor issue, said he senses the din has split the city of 180,000 along pro- and anti-union lines.

“Chattanooga was a very polarized place in my experience. People were either on one end of the spectrum or on the other,” said Elk, who founded his labor news reporting service, Pay Day Report, in Chattanooga and moved it to Pittsburgh.

Speaking vocally against the UAW has been Southern Momentum, led by Chattanooga lawyer Maury Nicely.

“Our belief is the UAW is concerned primarily about one thing,” Nicely said. “That is the dues they can get from these workers.’’

Southern Momentum describes itself as a grassroots group of VW autoworkers opposed to a Detroit union in their midst. Elk, the son of a labor organizer for the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical workers union, reports East Tennessee manufacturers pay Nicely for his Southern Momentum work.

Nicely said he is financed entirely by VW workers and grassroots donations from Chattanooga residents who sense VW might cancel expansions, like the proposed electric car, if the union takes root.

“If they can’t unionize in Chattanooga where the company won’t take a stance against them, it’s really made VW the litmus test for the UAW in the Southeast,” Nicely said. “If they can’t win here how can the union go on to Tuscaloosa, Greenville or Huntsville and try to win there?’’

Amid the rhetoric, union officials have sought out VW workers in their homes. One tactic has involved members of UAW Local 1853, which represents General Motors employees at Spring Hill, Tennessee. They have visited repeatedly, extolling $28-an-hour wages and superior health benefits and work rules. It is part of a steady campaign by the UAW to turn the tide since losing its last election at Chattanooga.

Each time the UAW ventured into the Southern auto belt, analysts raised the must-win argument, but the union has shrunk from a 1979 peak of more than 1.5 million active members to a low of 355,000 in 2009 and 395,703 last year. The recent gains have come among auto parts makers, casinos and teachers, but not the Southern auto sector.

Although the UAW, founded in Detroit in 1935, was long held up as a social movement representing the interests of the working class, not only UAW members, the union has fallen short in four key elections to represent Southern autoworkers — in 1989 at Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee; 2001 at Nissan Smyrna; 2014 at VW Chattanooga; and 2017 at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi.

“Southern workers tend to shy away from big unions, like the UAW, because these workers do not come from families with traditions of unionism,” said Chaison, professor emeritus at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “They have no focal point for their observations — no past family history of unionism — in thinking about unionism and what they can accomplish through them.”

Sexton, who had worked in an Audi dealership in Ohio near the Kentucky border, now installs doors on vehicles moving along the assembly line. He said he likes the pay, but dislikes the dirty restrooms and especially the workflow.

Some days, line speed increases before workers are informed. Other times, VW seems stingy about time off for medical issues, he said. The end result, he said, is workers feel offended.

“This is very hard work. We have a very high attrition rate,” Sexton said, adding, “I’m not anti-VW. I’m pro-VW. And I’m pro-UAW.’’

Can his argument sway the entire plant? That’s what VW will decide.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

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Published June 11, 2019