Who Will Stand Up For America's Workers?

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          In 2001, Volkswagen announced that it intended to open an assembly plant in the United States. A gaggle of low-wage, "right-to-work" Southern states competed for the honor by showering the German corporation with promises of taxpayer subsidies.

              Tennessee emerged the winner after it agreed to provide the richest incentives - more than $570 Million in tax incentives and aid. According to dispatch in The Times Free Press (Andy She, "Chattanooga: VW incentives largest in state," July 24 2008), the state's chief business recruiter defended the tax breaks and government t assistance because of the alleged benefits that he claimed the state would come from  VW's $1 billion assembly million. Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner for economic and community development, stated that "The Volkswagen investment in this community is going to have a tremendous economic gain for the entire region....I'm confident we're going to have a very reasonable incentive package when you look at the initial costs of what is being offered compared with a much bigger long-term return."


           The VW plant, which began production in April, 2011, presently employs about 2,0000 and anticipates an annual production of 150,000 cars beginning with a version of the 2012 Passat, tailored to the US market.  Located near Chattanooga, Tenn., the non-union plant pays starting workers about $27 an hour in wages and benefits. That hourly rate is about half the $52 an hour cost of labor incurred by Ford, GM and Chrysler at their plants, where employees are represented by United Automobile Workers. By contrast, the average VW auto worker in Germany is paid $67.14 per hour in salary in benefits


         Since the Tennessee plant opened, Volkswagen has been pressured by IG Metall, the German union with seats and influence in VW's boardroom, to introduce its model of a German-style works council (Betriebsrat) in Chattanooga. In addition, IG Metall supports the UAW's bid to organize the U.S. plant. The worker's council would help set work rules for white- and blue-collar workers, at its only U.S. plant.


            Under the Nation Labor Relations Act, Volkswagen cannot institute a works council in Tennessee unless the employees are first represented for collective bargaining purposes by an independent labor union since company-sponsored unions are treated as illegal shams.

             VW is now feeling increasing pressure from its powerful German union to allow the UAW to organize its plant in Tennessee. For that reason, Volkswagen has not mounted a vigorous campaign to defeat the union drive and some of the company's senior executives have intimated that they might even prefer having a union. After the U.A.W. formally asked VW for union recognition, and announced that a majority of the plant's 1,600 assembly workers had signed cards seeking union representation, the chorus of fear-mongers and anti-union zealots became increasingly louder.


           Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times ("Outsiders, Not Auto Plant, Battle U.A.W. in Tennessee," January 28, 2014) has reported that the push-back from the right-wing, anti-union politicians and vested business interests in Tennessee and elsewhere around the country has been furious. Defenders of the prevailing anti-union environment have chosen to invoke the specter of John Foster Dulles's discredited Cold War domino theory, to warn that if the U.A.W. is allowed to succeed in Chattanooga, that would provide momentum to unionize the two other German-owned plants in the South -  the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina.  


           As a result, the Center for Worker Freedom - a misnomered subsidiary of Grover Nordquist's Americans for Tax Reform, has mounted an anti-union campaign. In addition, Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, have repeatedly expressed fears that a U.A.W. victory would hurt the plant's competitiveness and undermine the state's business climate.  


            Greenhouse also reports that a business-backed group put up a billboard declaring, "Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga," and that the National Right to Work Committee, has entered the fray in which it filed a complaint with the NLRB, falsely claiming that VW officials improperly pressured workers to support hte U.A.W. drive to unionize the plant. Lastly,  Grover Nordquist has set up a group called  the Center for Worker Freedom to fight the U.A.W. and to prevent the election of Democratic office holders who would support the right of workers to organize and to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits.


          Greenhouse quotes Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University to the effect that, "It's unusual how national groups have really gotten interested in this," said. "It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what's happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history."


          According to Greenhouse, Governor Haslam and Senator Corker have both urged VW not to recognize the U.A.W. based on card signatures, but rather that it demand a secret-ballot election. Senator Corker is reported to have insisted that "While I care about Volkswagen, what I care most about is our community and about our households being able to progress and have a great standard of living," and "I'm concerned about the impact of the U.A.W. on the future efforts to recruit business to our community." Corker added, "The work rules and other things that typically come with the UA.W. would drive up costs. It would make the facility less competitive."


       Senator Corker's professed concern for community and for "households being able to progress and have a great standard of living" is pious rhetoric, divorced from logic and from the historical evidence. Tennessee is a low-wage state. It is one of five states that has refused to enact its own minimum wage. As of 2012, the state ranked number 39 in median family household, at $ $42,764, and its per capita income was $23,692.00, well below the national average. Further, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, the state's poverty rate in 2012 was nearly 18 percent, making Tennessee the 12th poorest state in the nation. If Senator Corker possessed a scintilla of intellectual integrity, he would admit that trickle-down economics does little other than to exacerbate income inequality, lower the wages of workers, hollow-out the middle class, and exponentially increase the wealth of the 1%.


          Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, argues "Certainly, plutocracy is less frightening than tyranny; resistance is less dangerous. The chief reason is that money can buy office, education, honor... It corrupts distributions without transforming them; and the corrupt distributions coexist with legitimate ones, like prostitution alongside married love. But this is tyranny still, and can make for harsh forms of domination. And if resistance is less heroic than in totalitarian states, it is hardly less important."


      The third and final iteration of the Kant's categorical imperative states, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means." An economic system that continues to treat employees as merely a disposable means to a more important end - profits, and for that reason, justifies low wages and imposes restrictions upon the rights of employees to better their conditions of employment, violates all norms of social justice and is incompatible with the evolution of democratic principles of fairness and equal treatment.


            By their statements and actions, Nordquist, Corker and Haslam have repeatedly proven their uncritical obeisance to the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. In equal measure, they have shown how little regard or concern they have for the best long-term interests of Tennessee's citizens or for every American who must work to eke out a living.    


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