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Will a works council at the Volkswagen plant help or hinder?
Sometimes, says Dave Gleason, the humidity can be stifling.
If it's not the humidity, it's not knowing what hours he'll be working. Gleason, a team leader at Volkswagen, can come in to work and suddenly see his 10-hour shift change.
They pay is good, yes, but it is still work. It is still a job. A job he thinks many politicians don't understand.
"Unless they are willing to come down and work my job for a month, they need to shut up," he said.
Gleason, along with others at Volkswagen, is on the front lines of a power struggle on whether the auto plant should unionize.
The union organizers say they have enough cards signed to do it.
"We think we've got it, and we're willing to go for it," said Gleason, who is on the organizing committee for VW.
Volkswagen officials could not be reached for comment.
But a former president of the company said last week he had his doubts.
"It's normal behavior," said Don Jackson, former president of manufacturing for the Volkswagen Group of America. "They've been saying that for four or five or six months."
The struggle to unionize the Volkswagen plant has led some state and local politicians to make comments in the media about how unionizing would have the potential to stifle job growth within Hamilton County (and East Tennessee) for companies who don’t want unions.
It's led special-interest groups to post billboards along state Highway 153 that state, "Auto Unions ate Detroit. Next meal: Chattanooga!"
But for some employees at the plant, this isn't about politics or about whether Chattanooga will turn into Detroit. It's simple.
It's about their jobs. It's about a desire to make sure they have better working conditions and a voice at the table.
"I love the company, but we have some issues with the American management and we have no way of actually addressing those issues when they come up," said Jonathon Walden, a VW employee in the paint department and a union supporter.
What some employees are striving for are two things: a union and a works council. In Germany, works councils are the norm and represent blue- and white-collar workers. But here in the U.S., it is illegal to have a works council without a union. So, VW employees reached out to the United Auto Workers of America (UAW) a year and a half ago, seeking help organizing the union.
The sides started sparring immediately. Union supporters say the company wants a union. Anti-union folks say the company has never said it wants a union.
Jackson said he's not anti-union; he's pro-company. But at the same time, he also listed a resume showing 35 years of working in auto plants that prided themselves in not being unionized.
In Jackson’s opinion, unions are a thing of the past. They were good in the 1940s and ’50s, he believes, but times have changed.
The former president mentioned committees he put in place before he left, and said what he did mirrors the German works councils.
No place at the international table
The VW works councils hold a meeting once a year in Germany. And the only plant not currently represented at that meeting is Chattanooga, because it currently has no works council. But Jackson said that means nothing.
"That once-a-year meeting is not the meeting that makes decisions about plants," he said.
Instead, he thinks Chattanooga's plant can represent itself in other ways, such as through production.
But workers say having only that “voice” isn't good enough. They want to keep their jobs. They want to excel. And not having a place at the table in Germany isn't good enough, especially with the plant trying desperately to secure a second product—a profitable sport utility vehicle—onto the line.
"They're not going to put a new product in a nonunion plant," Gleason said. "That's not the way they do things."
History shows Volkswagen is favorable toward unions. The only plant without a union is the one here in Chattanooga. The only plant without a works council is located in Russia, but that's changing soon as that plant organizes one.
Employees are worried, saying they could end up losing the potential second line to the Mexican plant, which is unionized.
For years, Chattanooga was a union town. During its industrial age, when the city was known as the "Dynamo of Dixie," unions became well established in the trade structure. But as we know, industry declined drastically in the 1970s—taking the unions along with it.
Critics of the plan to unionize VW continue to say that the UAW would like to get a foothold in Tennessee and in a Southeastern car plant. But the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., has been a union shop and a UAW union shop for more than 20 years.
Gleason grew up around unions. He said his parents worked for General Motors, but that never swayed him one way or the other. He worked for years at a nonunion plant before coming to Chattanooga, and never felt like that shop needed a union.
But he does see the need for a union here.
"A lot of people are receptive, and they've been over there for more than three years, and they've seen how it's changed," he said.
Walden said he would never have thought of joining a union in his life until now. He grew up in southwest Alabama, went to a private college and has been conservative all his life.
"Until I worked at Volkswagen, I would have been as anti-union as anyone," he said.
But life at the plant with its rotating shifts and uncertainty changed his mind. He gave examples of coworkers who were taken off lines with no choice and placed on other jobs without notice. He doesn't like not knowing what times he'll be working and living with rotating in and out.
Asked about the committees that provided the same benefits as a works council, he was frankly bewildered.
"There's committees of some sort somewhere, but there's not access to them," he said.
A union is needed, he said, because no one goes to bat for employees right now. It's every man for himself. The good old capitalist way, he said.
"I can't wait for this to happen," he said. "I'm ready for a union to come in."