Reports that United Auto Workers want to organize Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant has raised the question of whether or not auto manufacturing unions are viable in the South and if they are beneficial to the industry’s employees.
“There is not a simple answer for unionization,” Edmunds.com Senior Analyst Bill Visnic said. “In the earliest days of the auto industry, the unions really played a tremendous role in, sort of, improving the work environment and bringing humane treatment to blue-collar and hourly workers — and that was really their chief focus.”
But now federal laws regulate working conditions.
The purpose and functionality of unions has evolved since the 1960s and ‘70s and, in the southern right-to-work states, organizing efforts have lost momentum.
Despite what Visnic called a “bad taste in the mouth of some people” in recent years about auto manufacturing unions, some people in Chattanooga still gather to show solidarity.
In June, members of Chattanooga Organized for Actions joined with 13 area unions from several different industries to show support for organizing efforts.
Chris Brooks, co-founder of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said unions provide meaningful rights to auto manufacturing employees.
“I believe it’s fundamental to just being an American to have the right to make the choice to join the union,” Brooks said.
UAW southern region director Gary Casteel and other union representatives did not return multiple calls seeking comment about the group’s dialogue with Volkswagen executives.
Casteel told the Associated Press that, although there are no official organizing efforts ongoing, there is a discussion.
VW Chattanooga CEO Frank Fischer said at a recent press conference that “employees will decide,” about organizing efforts.
Brooks said he appreciates the position Volkswagen leaders have expressed.
“It gives them great credibility and speaks a lot of the company,” he said. “It is amazing to me to see that VW is willing to take such a strong and principled stance toward the democratic rights of workers.”
After initially organizing to help workers get humane treatment, the auto unions branched out into establishing middle class earnings and benefits, Visnic said.
“(They were) trying to assure a decent day’s wage for a day’s work,” he said. “In that sense, it helped foster the middle class.”
As unions evolved so did the purpose for organizing and after helping firm up the middle class, the intentions of unions becomes more blurry.
“As the unions gained more power in the 60s and 70s and started to really swell their ranks, the pendulum kind of shifted," Visnic said. "There was not a situation that started to go beyond those basic assurances. Unions started to develop convoluted rules about the work place environment.”
According to Visnic, by the ‘70s and ‘80s, auto manufacturing unions began to cramp the ways auto companies worked. Initially able to shift some power away from the company and give it to employees, eventually union regulations became counterproductive and profit-zapping, he said.
Stories about union rules creating working methods that essentially forced employees to waste time are abundant.
“As unionization really started to take hold, one of the biggest criticisms that you can level has been a certain amount of feather-bedding,” Visnic said. “Unions have been able to get five people to do a job that really would only require two or three.”
In 2008, General Motors and Chrysler asked the federal government for billions of dollars in bailout money to avoid bankruptcy.
The big three were all union organized.
Although Visnic adamantly said unions did not cause the fall of the Big Three auto companies, they were a contributing factor.
“That’s what happened to Detroit — to avoid problems with unions, strikes or shutdowns, they got these union contracts that allowed for all manner of ridiculous things,” he said.
Brooks said that unions have not been responsible for problems in the automotive industry.
He points to successful auto companies in Europe as an example.
“It wasn’t the workers, it wasn’t the union that decided to make gas-guzzling SUVs — an unsustainable product,” he said. “That is a decision made by management, not be the people making the cars.
Brooks’ organization has been working to educate the public about the history of unions — automobile and others — in Chattanooga.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but Chattanooga was renowned as being the most unionized city in the Southeast,” he said. “We think that’s a really important and proud piece of our history.”
But in recent decades, auto unions have not been successful in organizing in the South.
Casteel told the Associated Press that Volkswagen officials are more accustomed to organizing efforts, since the German-based company has had a global organized workforce.
German unions vs. American unions
“In unionized German, in particular, labor has seats on the board of the company,” Visnic said. “They are involved, directly involved, in the government of the company. That puts a different dynamic in the relationship. It allows them a different level of cooperation.”
But Visnic said that in the last generation all the new plants built in the United States have been in the South and have not unionized, with leaders of Japanese car plants first embracing the idea that unions aren’t needed to staff plants with qualified employees and provide them good working conditions.
“They were able to build a lot of these plants and start up a whole system of auto manufacturing that was independent of the UAW,” Visnic said. “By in large, those workers have been satisfied. Those companies have flourished. That lends credibility to critics of the union.”
Brooks said that it has been difficult to unionize the South because “there is a long-standing history in the South of employer intimidation.”
He said he is happy to see that Volkswagen executives are leaving it up to the employees.
Brooks said the best way for Volkswagen to be successful is to give the employees a choice.
“The best way we can ensure a good return is giving the members the choice — better pay, better benefits, great job security — they are going to have a voice,” he said.
An earlier version of this article stated Ford asked for bailout money. This error has been corrected. The sub-head was also clarified from an earlier version.