Know how southern Republican politicians who support “right to work” laws claim they’re not against unions as such — just against closed shop contracts that force workers to join a union as a condition of employment? They’re liars. The negative outcome of the recent UAW certification vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga proves that, if you needed any more proof.
Since Tennessee is a “right to work” state, the VW plant would have been an open shop — even if a majority of workers voted to unionize, nobody would have had to join the union or pay dues unless they wanted to. Plus, the Volkswagen corporation itself favored unionization and the creation of the first German-style works council at an American auto plant. They realize, like other employers who aren’t stupid enough to eat paint chips, that higher productivity-based wages, job security and worker participation in planning the production process are all good ways of building worker confidence and thereby eliciting cooperation in increasing productivity.
But who cares, when a Sun Belt Republican’s instinctive hatred of unions is involved? Enter US Senator Bob Corker, who exerted every bit of political influence at his disposal to to blackmail and intimidate VW workers into rejecting unionization. In one hand, he held out the carrot: “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.” In the other, he (and other GOP leaders in Tennessee) waved the stick: He warned that, if Chattanooga workers went union, Tennessee might take back all the “business incentive” subsidies it had used to entice VW to open a plant in that state.
So the message was loud and clear: Union employers — even voted in with the encouragement of management, and with entirely voluntary open-shop membership — aren’t welcome in Tennessee. If your business goes union, we’ll punish you.
And as it turns out, Volkswagen is actually less likely to build another plant in the American right-to-work south because of the anti-union vote. VW corporate policy mandates works councils at all their plants. The head of the company works council said that, after the vote in Chattanooga, it was unlikely that any new VW plants in the United States would be built in a right-to-work state.
So regardless of what lying dirtbags like Corker may say at times, they really just flat-out hate unions. The southern GOP is the party of sweatshop employers, who’d like to turn the entire U.S. into a good ol’ boy-dominated, “right to work” banana republic just like Tennessee.
What’s more, when Red State politicians claim to favor “right to work” laws because they want to attract good-paying jobs to the state, they’re also lying. But I’d already known this for a long time. Back in the ’90s, the new Belgian-owned Bekaert plant in the neighboring city of Rogers, Arkansas paid European union-scale wages to local workers. Other Rogers employers complained to the mayor that they couldn’t compete with such high wages; in response, he quietly leaned on Bekaert to lower wages.
So the Republican claim to favor free markets (which include the freedom of management and labor to negotiate union shop contracts), and their populist pose of supporting the little guy against the “union bosses,” are both a lot of hooey.
Of course, if the GOP is the party of provincial elites — the Sun Belt country club set — it’s nevertheless true that “progressive” Democrats and establishment unions also represent their own wing of the corporate ruling class. The New Deal coalition and its labor accord originally represented the interests of large, capital-intensive, export-oriented manufacturers. Because they followed a capital-intensive production model, wages were a relatively modest part of their total cost package. And because of their long-term planning horizons and need for predictability, they were extremely vulnerable to disruption by wildcat strikes, slowdowns, and other forms of direct action on the job. So it was entirely in their interest to provide relatively high wages, job security and a grievance process in return for coopting the union establishment to enforce contracts on the rank-and-file and prevent wildcatting.
So what’s the answer? Workers in Chattanooga can still unionize without a certification vote or permission from the NLRB. They can still organize in solidarity and undertake direct action on the job — and they can do it in ways that neither VW corporation nor Bob Corker will like very much at all. Workers formed unions and engaged in direct action — far more effectively — long before the Wagner Act, and they still can. Just Google “IWW” and “How to Fire Your Boss: A Worker’s Guide to Direct Action on the Job.”
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.