A long look at the ongoing VW unionization fight by someone who’s been there.
Editor’s Note: David is taking a step outside his normal monthly automotive column to share some personal insights and perspective on an issue that has been one of the major local news stories this year.
Watching the UAW and ACE is like hiding in the stairwell while your parents fight.
As far as I can tell, everybody likes the works council. VW likes it, the UAW likes it, the ACE likes it and VW workers in Germany seem to like it. Most importantly, employees in Chattanooga like it. The problem isn’t that people aren’t getting what they want—it’s that they’re not getting it exactly how they want it.
Labor runs deep in my family. My paternal grandparents were involved in the labor movement in the ’30s and I grew up believing with all my heart that a worker’s union was the sole guarantee of decent treatment that a factory worker had.
It became a little more complicated as I grew up. Around age 18 after working as a carpenter though high school, I tried to join a United Brotherhood of Carpenters local, for the promise of training and steady work. They told me, explicitly, they were really only taking minorities and women.
I understood the need to broaden the demographic of a white-male-dominated profession, but I didn’t understand why that was the union’s mission. Later on, when I worked with union carpenters I understood even less.
There was apparently a finite amount of work, so the less experience you had, the less you worked, with the good (and better paying) work going to those with seniority. Meanwhile, I was free to go find a better paying job and all the hours I wanted.
So what, exactly, was the union doing?
It is not in my nature to be anti-union. You have to have a mighty rosy view of human nature and history not to think that left unchecked, large employers will sooner or later return us to sweatshops. Even if they want to treat people well, shareholders demand maximum profit. My sister works for a large, highly profitable company that is in the process of massive layoffs.
Not because their bottom line is hurting, but because their market position is so secure they can make even more money if they lose 30 percent of their workforce and make the remainder work 30 percent harder. Imagine what a struggling company would do if they could.
Clearly, the UAW (or something like it) needs to exist. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t needs to remember Henry Ford’s strikebreakers, in the days they were literally breakers. Do you think 14-hour days and the company store couldn’t happen again in 21st century America? Ask one of this country’s army of desperately poor service workers or migrant laborers. All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, right? That stuff will always creep back in if we don’t pay attention.
Which leaves a terrible quandary at Volkswagen in Chattanooga. Works councils seem to do all the things that VW shop floor workers actually want, providing what VW in Germany calls co-direction—a say in the running of the factory.
But it turns out they can’t have one—US labor law says management cannot support a labor organization, presumably because they might subvert it. So, I assume reluctantly, VW AG’s global works council has had to endorse the UAW, as the only way to achieve organized labor representation in Chattanooga, even if the “lite” version won’t have the same legal rights as a European works council.
But surely, this is not the only way. Rather than just being reflexively hostile and obstructionist, maybe this is an opportunity for Sen. Bob Corker to do something productive for once and look into a bipartisan effort to update US labor law to allow something other than a one-size-fits-all union-or-nothing approach.
We need the UAW, and maybe even need it in some form here. Without a presence at major factories such as this, the UAW shrinks away and dies—and you can’t count on the next plant to be built to behave like VW.
Someone needs to come up with a third road that gives just a little more freedom than current law will allow.