A Tale of Two Cultures Redux

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Imagine this:

You work at an auto plant where you are paid well, get good benefits and your employer treats you well. However, you are also semi-skilled and easily replaced. At any time, your employer can cut your wages and benefits, reduce your hours or fire you outright. If you lose your job, there are no comparable jobs in the area. At best, you’ll end up doing twenty-five dollar oil changes at the Jiffy Lube for minimum wage.

Now, you’re given the opportunity to keep your benefits, your pay and your healthy work environment, and in addition, the ability to have a greater say in the workplace as part of a union. At least indirectly, you’ll have input into working conditions, pay and benefits. And if people have to be let go, you’ll have a say in that, too. On top of that, your employer is okay with the idea.

Question: Would you take the deal?

The answer at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga
Tennessee was no. Friday, it was announced that the workers a there voted to rejected joining the United Auto Workers’ Union by a vote of 712to 626.

I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder why. Sure, in some cases, it may make sense not to unionize, especially if the union has proven itself to be inept or corrupt, and your employer already treats workers as valuable stakeholders in the organization. As I’ve written before, unions are not inherently good or bad. But in this case, there appeared to be no down-sides. It would allow a workers council to be set up that would cooperate with management to improve the plant. In addition, UAW members generally receive better pay and benefits than non-unionized auto workers.

In my last post on this topic, I said that unionization was the workers choice, and it is. But only if those workers are able to make a choice free of bias and misinformation. One reason for the election’s failure was interference from outsiders. Pro-business groups, seeing any attempt at granting workers rights as a harbinger of Communism, lobbied against it. Politicians followed suit – the Governor warned that it would hurt the state’s ability to attract other employers. Legislators threatened to withhold VWs tax incentives. In essense, they promised to bring about the demise of the plant rather than allow a union. These may have been nothing but idle threats, but they were idle threats that worked.

Ironic that these same politicians otherwise believe that government should keep its hands out of business. I guess they never expected business to side with workers.

But while outside interference played a major role, so did a culture of anti-unon as old as the South itself. In Antebellum times, Southern states generally ran like oligarchies. The wealthy decided who would be elected to public office, enacting laws in their favor, living like wealthy nobles while black slaves toiled in their cotton fields under the threat of the whip, and white share croppers didn’t fair much better. And when this way of life was threatened by the growing influence and power of the North, they convinced those poor white people, who they never helped in any way, to go fight and die for them. We have to protect our rights from interference from the North, they said. When what they really wanted to protect was their right to keep slaves.

I’m in no way equating the situation in Tennessee with slavery. Slavery is an abomination and the VW workers are by no means slaves. My point is that those in power are using the same arguments to keep workers from unionizing that they have always used in order to maintain control. They painted the UAW as a northern organization coming down to the South to tell them what to do. A complete myth. While having started in the Detroit auto plants, the UAW now includes many other types of workers throughout the country, including sourthern states. They also propogated the lie that if people become part of a union or some other group joined together for the common good, they will somehow lose their individual freedom. In reality, that individual freedom doesn’t exist. If you don’t believe me, look at all those people laid off in the great recession while the executives and investment bankers who caused them to lose their jobs managed to keep their own.

I hope for the best for those Chattanooga workers. I hope they get their workers council without a union (although US law makes this difficult if not impossible). But if VWs fortunes turn, and the plant has lay offs, I doubt if any of the politicians or business leaders who decried a union will come to their rescue.


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