In 2014, the United Auto Workers attempted to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Despite tacit neutrality from the company, Tennessee politicians and right-wing funders used open race-baiting and an intense anti-union campaign and the attempt failed, one of the worst blows to the labor movement in the last decade. Now the UAW is going for another shot. This time, Volkswagen isn’t pretending they want the union and the level of union-busting is pretty outrageous, all the way to the point of the governor of Tennessee leading his own union-busting captive audience rally.
The lines stopped at Tennessee’s Volkswagen factory today as workers were forced to attend an all-plant captive audience meeting with the state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee.
A recording of the governor’s speech, obtained by Labor Notes, reveals a raucous meeting in which the governor tried to praise workers while encouraging them to vote against the union.
Workers at Volkswagen’s sole U.S. plant filed for a union election with the Labor Board earlier this month. This will be the third union election there in the past five years.
“My friend said ‘What is this about?’ I said, ‘He’s here to tell us we don’t need a union,’” said one worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I bet him five bucks. He paid me.”
Local media was not informed about the event or allowed into the plant, signaling that Lee’s purpose was to address the upcoming union vote in a speech likely to elicit strong reactions from workers in attendance.
The governor’s speech opened by marking his 100th day in office and the need for vocational training in the state to foreground his remarks about unionization.
Beginning near the 12-minute mark, the governor said, “I do believe, based on my personal experience of working with hundreds of skilled trades people over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges.”
He added, “There are things in your workplace that you wish were different. I also believe … that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.”
The plant’s auto workers responded with boos and clapping, reflecting a divided audience.
The governor’s comments echo those of the company. On April 18, Volkswagen’s top management issued a “Special Communication” to employees that stressed the company’s preference for maintaining “open dialogue”—a euphemism for staying non-union.
Volkswagen’s management was less than pleased with the heckling, according to workers in attendance.
“We had open dialogue back by letting the governor know that we think he is full of it,” said Billy Quigg, who has worked on assembly in the plant for seven years. “Don’t preach open dialogue and then get upset when we make it clear that we disagree with what the governor is saying.”
Good on at least some workers standing up to this blatant act of intimidation. But I’ll believe the UAW election will win this election when it happens. The U.S. labor movement has long had many intractable problems. One of them is the South and how white workers especially are incredibly resistance to unions. This was the reason why the apparel industry moved to this very region of the South a century ago, seeking to escape a unionized Northeast by choosing a region with a long history of racial divides, paternalistic politics, and evangelical religion that had a strong dose of racism and anti-Semitism that connected unions with both. And how much has really changed? The South of 2019 is not the South of 1919, but the anti-union animus and dominance of paternalism and evangelical religion backed by racism remains about as strong, if less universal. Southern politicians continue to directly intervene in union-busting and this will probably never change.
Figuring this out must be at the top of organized labor’s agenda, except for the fact that I think it really can’t be figured out, or at least not to the extent that could lead to widespread successful unionization.