Virginia Volvo Strikers Narrowly Approve New Contract

Photograph Source: possan – CC BY 2.0

Volvo North America workers at their plant in Dublin, in Virginia’s New River Valley– Volvo NRV– narrowly approved a new 6-year contract with the company last week, having rejected the same deal a week before.

In that earlier rejection, 60% of UAW Local 2069 members taking part voted “no” on the terms of that tentative agreement– this being the 3rd failed deal since negotiations began in April this year.

So why this seeming about-turn in a relatively short time?

After UAW workers rejected the 3rd tentative agreement, Volvo’s management said negotiations had reached a deadlock, and that Volvo would impose the failed agreement as its “final” offer, and reopen the plant a few days later.

UAW Local 2069, representing 2900 of the plant’s 3300 workers, then voted on Volvo’s “last and best” offer. The subsequent ballot showed UAW Local 2069 to be in favour of this “final” offer by a mere 17 votes.

The strike will end, at least for now.

But there are still issues to be worked out for salaried employees, who voted 54-40 against their part of the contract.

The new contract eliminates the two-tier wage structure (which forces younger voters to accept pay and benefits of a lower standard), raises wages immediately for some employees, speeds-up progression to top pay for all employees, and, most importantly though to the detriment of workers, does not guarantee health insurance increases over the life of the agreement.

Volvo NRV Vice President and General Manager Franky Marchand released a boilerplate statement after the vote: “This agreement allows us to continue providing our employees with a great quality of life, with guaranteed wage growth and excellent benefits. It will also help secure the plant’s long-term growth and sustainability. Our focus now will be on getting trucks to customers as quickly as we can, and strengthening our relationship with our employees”.

Volvo NRV, in tandem with UAW’s national and local leadership has sought to induce workers, who have been drawing $275 a week in union strike pay since June 7, to return to their jobs. UAW Local 2069 will issue strike checks for this amount on July 19 and 20, with a final check distributed in the week of July 26.

“Any employees who return to work on July 12 or thereafter will immediately receive the wage increases and benefits outlined in the July 1 agreement,” the Volvo NRV statement continued.

Volvo has said some workers returned to work the day after the deal was reached (they will be paid for days worked), but since the mandatory return to work date is July 19, the plant is not operating at full capacity. Strikers remained on the picket line.

UAW Local 2069, with the rank-and-file strikers’ committee snapping at its heels, will continue its struggle by filing an “unfair labor” complaint against Volvo with the National Labor Relations Board, on the grounds that the company required workers to vote twice on the same contract proposal after it had been rejected the first time.

There is deep dissatisfaction with the national and official local UAW– strikers have been using UAW Local 2069’s Facebook page to voice their anger and frustration with what some said was the chicanery involved on the part of the national and local UAWS in allowing Volvo to thrust down the throats of NRV workers a tentative deal that had been rejected the week before. Only the rank-and-file strikers’ committee is trusted not to collude with Volvo. Here are some comments made on Facebook:

+ “You know they [national UAW] won’t fight for us”

+ “The UAW and Labor Notes both suppressed and isolated you guys, and this misplaced love for the union doesn’t do anyone any favors. Please remember your *real* brothers and sisters in the rest of the industry….”

+ “Who got the best deal from the contract? Uhh. Oh yea. Your local president. All for hisself and not you”

+ “Volvo has owned the union ever since the day they let the union stewards move off the assembly line into airconditioned office’s and started new hire’s at a lower wage…. That pay’s for them being off line, and allows them to come in on every Sat. and Sun….Put em back on the assembly line and get a great contract next time. You have to put these people back in the same boat with the rest of you…. Make em show their w-2 and see the difference in pay.!!!”

+ “Everyone had to realize this was the way it was going to turn out. The UAW has been giving big concessions to the corporate big wigs for years. VA is a right to work state don’t forget….”

+ “I am sorry that you all had to fight both the company and your union leadership. At least this will serve as an example to others in the future. You should seriously consider starting a decertification campaign to replace your representation. Your leadership demonstrated a level of incompetence that borders on intentional.

If nothing else, screw the leaders that screwed you. They won’t get pushed up the ladder if you all pull it out from under them”

+ “Sign on bonus is like a carrot dangling in front of a steer led to slaughter, $2000….really chicken feed after taxes maybe $1100”

+ “Of course they want to break the union”.

As was mentioned above, VA is a right-to-work state, and the NRV area has faced population and jobs declines for several years, but is a Republican stronghold even so.

A glance through the comments “below the line” in the local newspaper, The Roanoke Times, will show considerable hostility towards the Volvo strikers, along the lines of “you guys should get a job at McDonalds and Walmart and see what it’s like”, “Wait till Volvo relocates their plant to Ohio”, and so on.

This is exactly what large multinationals count on when they establish themselves in the US South.

Not just Volvo NRV, but Mercedes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, BMW in Greer, South Carolina, Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Toyota in Georgetown, Kentucky, Honda in Greensboro, North Carolina, among others.

With 28 states having right-to-work laws, these multinationals have a wide choice of potential locations!

Volvo NRV and UAW played on the real or perceived fears of locals that pushy workers could drive the company to another location with more a more docile labour force.

A major line of the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will be shutting down soon — the line in question employs approximately 1,000 workers in the production of the company’s best-selling vehicle, the luxury C-Class sedan.

Mercedes buried this announcement in the preliminary 2021 second quarter financial report issued by its parent company Daimler AG, which reported a loss of €1.68bn/$1.91 billion for the quarter.

The C-Class shutdown is a cost-cutting move. The Alabama plant will continue production of sport-utility vehicles — the GLE, GLE Coupe and GLS.

Workers everywhere are at the mercy of their multinational employers—eat into our profit margins, and your jobs could be jeopardized, is the clear message.

The workers at Volvo NRV had not received a pay increase in 5 years under the previous wage agreement. The Volvo multinational corporation had revenues of $30.68bn, and operating profits of $1.3bn, in 2020. Recently Volvo Group paid over $2.3 billion in dividends to shareholders.

It just makes your heart bleed at the damage the Volvo NRV workers are doing to these ample profits and dividends.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.