Can a union victory happen in the South?

Volkswagen crossblue SUV in front of Chattanooga factory Image copyright volkswagen
Image caption Volkswagen recently announced it would expand its Chattanooga facility to build an SUV

Exactly one year ago today, it seemed as if the US car union had fought its last battle - and lost.

After the United Automobile Workers' (UAW) union failed in its effort to unionise a Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the New York Times proclaimed "Volkswagen Vote Is Defeat for Labour in South".

But reports of the death of the movement seem to have been greatly exaggerated.

Quietly, over the past year, behind the scenes and away from the bombast of politicians, the UAW - and another, rival group called the American Council of Employees (ACE) - have continued to organise the workers at VW's Chattanooga plant, which employs more than 2,500 people.

Now, the question seems not to be if organised labour can take root in the South, but rather what model the workers here will choose.

Image copyright Center for Worker Freedom
Image caption The Center for Worker Freedom had purchased 13 billboards in Chattanooga opposing the vote in 2014

It's a choice that has profound implications for the thousands of manufacturing employees here in Chattanooga, for the international and domestic car manufacturers who have chosen to locate in the South - and, more broadly, for the future of manufacturing work in America.


I first spoke with Chris Brown on the cusp of the election that would prove such a disappointment to the UAW.

One of the first to sign up for work at the Chattanooga plant - he worked on car number 355 - he says he wants this job to be the last one he works in his life.

Image caption Chris Brown was one of the first Volkswagen workers to meet with the UAW

Last February, he was hopeful that VW's implicit support for the unionisation effort - the German company has indicated that it would prefer workers to organise in a similar manner to its other manufacturing facilities, which are all represented by European-style "works councils" - would ensure victory.

"I was very disappointed by the vote," he tells me now, as I meet him as after shift inspecting Passat sedans for quality.

He says he was particularly disappointed by interference from Tennessee politicians in the final days of the vote.

"I cannot express how deeply they disrespected us as people," he says.

One particular instance stands out for him - and for the UAW, which initially attempted to appeal the results of the election as a result of the incident.

Image copyright Volkswagen
Image caption Currently, the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga builds the Passat sedan

During the vote, Tennessee senator Bob Corker said that if the workers at the plant voted to unionise, VW would decide against adding production of another vehicle to the Chattanooga facility.

Although VW had never indicated that it would do so, the threat scared off many workers, who ultimately decided against unionising by a vote of 712 against to 626 in favour.

VW later announced that it would add production of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) to the factory, and an additional 2,000 jobs as a result.

Hostile territory

Image caption The view of Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain, where the South was dealt a devastating blow in the Civil War

For most, the defeat of the UAW came as no surprise.

The South has been particularly hostile to unions and organised labour. In the 1940s, most Southern states instituted right-to-work laws. These bar contracts that require workers at unionised workplaces to pay union fees, hurting unions' coffers and hampering organisational efforts.

"I think you'll find that, by and large, the South is a non-union area, a non-union region," says Maury Nicely, a lawyer who had represented the anti-union group during the vote and continues to represent ACE.

This dislike of unions is partially due to the fact that they are perceived as outsider groups, coming from the North to threaten southern jobs.

But it also dates back even further, says University of Mississippi history professor Jarod Roll.

"It goes all the way back to the period after Emancipation in the late 1870s, when former Confederates and slave owners were in league with northern investors to try to keep wages low, to keep workers powerless and unorganised," he says.

That legacy carried into the early part of the 20th Century, when politicians and employers often threatened that bad things would happen should workers unionise - which is perhaps why the threats by Tennessee's politicians carried such weight during the initial union vote.

"I think people continue to take those threats very seriously in the South because the region has a genuine history of following out on those threats," Prof Roll notes. For instance, union leaders at an eastern Tennessee coal mine were shot in the 1930s - and machine guns were left on their body to ward of any potential successors.

'Victory from defeat'

But a strange thing happened after the vote.

VW remained firm in its desire to encourage workers to organise into a works council - and the Chattanooga employees who had initially fought for UAW recognition remained committed to their fight.

Image caption Dave Gleeson is a fourth-generation car industry worker

"You know, after it was over with we took a couple days, licked our wounds and asked 'Okay, what do we do now?'" says Dave Gleeson, who works on the door team at the VW plant.

"We just kept right on going."

Unsurprisingly, the UAW - which has been desperately trying to boost its membership as union participation has declined over the past few decades in the US - also continued to lend support to their cause.

Over the summer, it opened a Local 42 office in a massive building that houses a whole range of other union groups, where workers often gather to print signs and talk over issues at the plant, such as how VW schedules overtime.

Dwindling base

Image caption Eric DeLacy works on the paint finesse line at the Volkswagen plant
  • Union participation rates in the US peaked in the 1950s, and then significantly fell in the 1980s as US manufacturing declined.
  • Overall, 11.1% of US workers belong to a union - and most of them are public sector unions, like teachers and police officers.
  • Notably, over half of the 14.6 million union members in the US live in just seven states, most of them in the northeast. In the south - where most states have right-to-work laws - union participation rates have always been quite low.
Percentage of workers represented by unions in southern US states
North Carolina 3.2%
South Carolina 3.2%
Mississippi 4.5%
Georgia 4.9%
Arkansas 5.4%
Tennessee 5.6%
Virginia 6.2%
Louisiana 6.4%
Florida 7%
Alabama 12.1%

For its part, VW drafted a "community organisation engagement policy", which stated that any group that could prove it represented a percentage of Chattanooga's workers was entitled to certain negotiating powers with management.

Image caption The UAW opened Local 42 over the summer in a building with other union offices

In December, the UAW submitted paperwork claiming to represent over 45% of the factory's workers - which would ensure it the highest level of bargaining rights with VW's management.

"It's a victory from defeat," says Mr Brown.

"In some ways the interference made us stronger because we've grown closer together as a result of this."

The anti-union union

However, while the UAW was the group that VW initially chose to help it organise Chattanooga's workers, the company says it doesn't particularly care how they are represented.

Image caption VW head of US operations Michael Horn said he was optimistic about what's happening in Chattanooga

"We've made a community organisation engagement policy which is open to different representation," Volkswagen's US boss, Michael Horn, told me from the floor of the Detroit car show in January.

"Whether it's a union here or maybe another union there - it's a very fair way of engaging our workforce," he added.

This has left the door open to the American Council of Employees (ACE) - a rival group that bills itself as the "anti-union union" - and which says it has a better model for how to represent Chattanooga workers that eschews alignment with a national group in favour of focusing just on the specifics of the VW plant here.

I met Sean Moss, the interim leader of the group, at their brand-new headquarters - a space that once belonged, fittingly, to a youth group.

Image caption Sean Moss says he is wary of the UAW because of Detroit's decline

"We're an organisation that's been built to represent the employees from the local perspective," he says.

"We don't want to have to answer to Detroit, to Washington, to politicians or anything that happens when you get involved with a large international group."

Mr Moss and the rest of ACE - who claim to represent at least 15% of the VW plant's workers - say they are wary of the UAW, partially because they blame it for Detroit's decline.

Image copyright volkswagen
Image caption Volkswagen currently employees over 2,000 people in Chattanooga with plans to add thousands more jobs

Above all, they believe that the UAW's model based on traditional collective bargaining and rigid adherence to a formalised structure is no longer helpful to them as they pursue issues with VW's management.

"The number of unionised workers in the US is falling every year - what the [UAW is] doing is selling buggy whips and we're building flying cars," he says.

"It's out of date and it doesn't work anymore.

"We have to build a new model of representation - we want to start from scratch and get it right."

A new model

For now, both groups seem content to try and rally members to their side, while insisting that the mood inside the plant is relatively neutral.

Image caption Volkswagen is everywhere in Chattanooga - even greeting visitors at the airport

But they point to other factories in the South, such as Nissan's plant in Mississippi, where the UAW has been attempting to make inroads, and a Mercedes plant in Alabama, whose members have been in contact with the ACE group, as potential knock on effects of whatever happens in Chattanooga.

Both ACE and the UAW know that the outcome here could fundamentally reshape the landscape of US labour in the South - as well as potentially reversing a trend of manufacturing facilities moving south simply to avoid organised labour.

"My great-grandfathers helped to form unions in the mines here in Tennessee," says Mr Brown.

"America's standard of living has declined as union membership has declined - and it's not a trend that I hope to reverse, it's a trend that we have to reverse to stay viable as a nation.

"This is hopefully the start of a new revolution - we're establishing a new labour model here in the US for the 21st Century."

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