VW on radar: UAW chief sets sights on Southern automakers

By Matt Patterson and Julia Tavlas, Originally published in timesfreepress.com

The UAW is coming! The UAW is coming!

It’s not quite Paul Revere’s famous warning, but it’s true nonetheless. Yes, the United Auto Workers union, having left Detroit a shell of its former glory, has been forced to cast its gaze to the foreign-owned auto plants in the South.

Volkswagen has operated an assembly plant in Chattanooga for the past two years, where it churns out the very popular Passat sedan. The Passat won the 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year award — which judges models on a variety of value and safety criteria — propelling it to sales of more than 117,000 that year alone (though growth has slowed somewhat in 2013, forcing VW to announce it will cut about 500 jobs).

It’s a shining jewel too tempting for UAW head Bob King to resist. And he’s been busy seeking powerful allies in his campaign to unionize the VW plant, including leaders from IG Metall, Germany’s largest industrial union. IG Metall’s support is crucial to King since the union represents Germany’s Volkswagen workers.

King appears to have been successful in his overtures; IG Metall President Berthold Huber has urged VW Tennessee workers to acquiesce to UAW leadership, saying in a letter:

“[I]n Chattanooga, you need union representation. We strongly recommend that eligible employees at Volkswagen, Chattanooga, decide that UAW should represent them.”

King must be glad for the help, because he has spent the better part of a decade failing to organize foreign auto makers, including Nissan plants in Tennessee and Mississippi. And no wonder; the workers at these plants claim they don’t have it so bad and wonder why they would need the UAW at all. Quoted in Bloomberg, Corey Garner, a longtime worker at the Canton, Miss., plant, publicly pooh-poohed UAW propaganda.

“Nobody is violating my rights. Things are not bad in Canton,” Garner said. “We make a decent wage, especially for this area, it’s one of the better jobs.”

Garner sees very little support for the union in his fellow plant workers. “If you poll the plant, you’ll see it’s a small number of people who want to join,” he claims.

So Volkswagen is make-or-break for King and his crew, and he may just succeed this time. And with IG Metall on board, the stakes are bigger than an average organizing campaign and the potential rewards greater. King hopes to install in Chattanooga a German-style “works council,” which gives union leaders a significant voice in company operations. King may have realized in his failure to organize the Japanese factories that the UAW needed to offer something more than standard union fare. A “works council” may just fit the bill for otherwise content Volkswagen employees.

Certainly, King needs all the help he can get; three and a half decades ago the UAW was a legion 1.5 million strong. These days a mere 390,000 claim UAW membership. Unsurprisingly, the decline in UAW numbers has coincided with a hemorrhage in Detroit-based auto manufacturing jobs (200,000 jobs in the last 12 years alone). In the same time, the foreign-owned companies are creating thousands of jobs throughout the south.

King (rightly) sees the transnational factories as his organization’s last best hope. He has publicly admitted: “We’ve got very aggressive campaigns going on at the transnationals. … We know that’s key … [to] the long-term security of our membership.”

Tennessee is happy to have the Volkswagen plant and its 2,800 jobs. But Bob King absolutely needs it.