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UAW Faces Its Moment of Truth

Beginning on Wednesday and extending through Friday, approximately 1,700 employees at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will be asked to vote on whether or not to join the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The outcome of this landmark vote is being carefully watched not only by the Mandarins at Solidarity House, in Detroit, and by auto executives and economists throughout Europe and Asia, but by American companies unrelated to the auto industry. A pro-union vote in Chattanooga can revitalize the whole labor movement.

Which is to say, there is a great deal riding on this. Way more than simply a bunch of workers choosing whether or not to affiliate. For if VW workers do, in fact, become the first big-time auto plant in the Deep South (which historically has rejected anything having to do with organized labor) to go union, it will send a clear message to companies like Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes, et al.

It will suggest to foreign automakers that the decades-long gravy train—where these companies could treat American workers worse than they would dare treat their own workers back home—is finally over.

The hard-shell of anti-unionism indigenous to Dixie will have been cracked. The South shall rise again! Granted, maybe not in the manner in which that post-Civil War slogan was originally intended, but in a good way nonetheless.

Back in 2014, after a full-court press by the UAW, these same Chattanooga workers came close—heartbreakingly close—to choosing to affiliate with the union. Not only did it appear that these autoworkers were ready to become part of the U.S. labor movement, but the Volkswagen Corporation itself appeared more than happy to have them join their heavily unionized family.

Indeed, over the objections of Tennessee politicians and lobbyists, VW went so far as to send corporation brass (both HR and operations people) all the way to Chattanooga to explain to the workers exactly what the advantages would be of belonging to a union. It goes without saying that this move freaked out a whole segment of the community.

The notion of corporation big-wigs making a good faith effort to promote union membership was not only anathema to American businesses, it was something that no one could rightly imagine happening, not even at a nominally “union friendly” facility, and certainly not in the heart of the American South.

But even after VW itself more or less “stumped” for union membership, the 2014 vote came out 712-626 against joining. A crushing blow to the UAW, one that’s going to sting for a long time to come. Unless this current vote goes their way. There is always a whole array of reasons—both sensible and frustratingly irrational—to explain a certification vote-down, and Chattanooga was no exception.

Lots of factors weighed in. Ignorance, ideology, inertia, fear of change, fear of collectivism, an unwillingness to have black employees made equal to whites, and women made equal to men, and oddly, given reverberations that can be traced all the way back to Jefferson Davis, an aversion to anything associated with the word “union.”

Adding to the disappointment of losing a close vote was what happened shortly afterward. Volkswagen was found to have committed an egregious violation of environmental regulations by having “gamed the system.” They equipped nearly 600,000 diesel cars with computer software that lied about the amount of tailpipe emissions. In short, cars that were clear polluters were falsely and intentionally verified as being clean.

Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the scandal, dozens of high-ranking VW officials, including the CEO, were forced to resign. The fact that a manufacturing company was found to have failed to comply with environmental standards wasn’t exactly big news. That happens every week. What stunned everyone was the sheer audacity of the fraud.

Alas, an indirect consequence of that corporate shit-storm was VW’s decision not to get involved in Chattanooga’s next vote. Although the emissions debacle had nothing to do with a unionism, and even though an isolated group of maintenance workers had voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the UAW, Volkswagen had had its nose bloodied. This time around, they chose to maintain a low profile.

So best of luck to the UAW. It seems like those good people have been down about 40 miles of bad road. If any labor union in America is in need of good news and the public’s support, it’s the United Auto Workers. By the weekend we should all know how the vote went.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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