Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Nice Thing To Say

Politico's Kevin Robillard reports that (in a shocking blow to the middle class)

Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., have rejected the United Auto Workers, shooting down the union’s hopes of securing a foothold at a foreign-owned auto plant in the South.

The vote was 712 to 626, said the UAW, which blamed the loss on “politicians and outside special interest groups"...

the decision is a triumph for Tennessee Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker, who lured Volkswagen to Chattanooga as mayor in the early 2000s. Corker and other Republicans warned workers that the UAW’s presence would irreparably harm the plant, and in recent days he claimed — with little evidence — that Volkswagen would choose not to expand the plant if workers unionized.

“Needless to say, I am thrilled for the employees at Volkswagen and for our community and its future,” Corker said in a brief statement Friday night.

The D.C.-based Center for Worker Freedom, a division of conservative activist Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, also campaigned against the union drive by blaming unions for Detroit’s economic woes and saying the UAW supports liberal politicians who favor gun control.

In a statement, the UAW blamed the conservative groups and Tennessee Republicans for their stinging defeat, with UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel saying that “politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee.”

“While we’re outraged by politicians and outside special interest groups interfering with the basic legal right of workers to form a union, we’re proud that these workers were brave and stood up to the tremendous pressure from outside,” UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams said. “We hope this will start a larger discussion about workers’ right to organize.”

Or, as is more likely, embolden anti-worker politicians and groups.  Robillard continues

If the UAW couldn’t succeed in Chattanooga, it’s unlikely to find success elsewhere in the South.

The UAW had advantages in organizing the Volkswagen plant it probably won’t find elsewhere. For starters, Volkswagen — under pressure from the powerful German steelworkers’ union, IG Metall, which holds seats on the company’s board — decided not to resist unionization. The union’s presence would have also allowed the company to set up a German-style “works council,” in which representatives of both workers and middle management offer advice to executives on how to best run the plant.

“I don’t think this is a bellwether for future success for the UAW,” said Donald Schroeder, a management-side labor lawyer at Mintz Levin, before the results were announced. “The UAW almost has had a free run at unionizing.”

While the German union also has seats on the boards of BMW and Mercedes-Benz, those companies haven’t indicated they’d welcome a works council at their plants in South Carolina or Alabama. But the works council concept is still alive.

Other foreign-owned automakers in the U.S., like Nissan and Hyundai, are also likely to strongly resist unionization attempts.

In addition, Volkswagen’s workers were underpaid by industry standards, with wages topping out in the low $20-an-hour range.

President Obama, however, weighed in with his support for the workers in their conflict with Tennessee rightists.  According to reports from anonymous sources, Obama responded to a question about extension of unemployment benefits by charging GOP legislators "are more concerned about German shareholders than American workers."

The ironies abound, whether "having a free election just freaks people out" (as Chris Hayes put it Thursday) or Repubs go all in for the heavy hand of government when they can interfere with a union-management issue.  And on Friday, Hayes argued that concern of the GOP legislators probably has more to do with maintaining the tradition of cheap Southern labor than with French shareholders.

Intriguingly, Obama's largely unsolicited remarks supportive of union labor were made at a closed-door session at an annual retreat of House Democrats which took place Valentine's Day "near the end of the (voting) period."   After we've watched this nominal Democrat govern for five years, it is not too cynical to suggest that he decided to score a few points with the left, including the progressive wing of his Party, while incurring relatively little controversy for remarks made too late to have a significant impact upon the election outcome.  It's unlikely that a whole lot of autoworkers took time out of their work day to scour the Internet or listen to the local news.

But it was a nice gesture. And for a guy who still is looking for those shoes comfortable enough to join a picket line, it was a step forward.

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