Tennessee Governor to Volkswagen Employees: Please, Do Not Unionize
Volkswagen’s singular U.S. plant has toyed with the idea of unionizing for the past five years. Chattanooga Operations, in Tennessee, initially seemed fine with the establishment of a German-style works council. However, while the United Auto Workers’ first attempt to seal the deal with votes failed in 2014, the union has since managed to rally more staff under its banner.
The UAW is now calling for another vote (its fifth), claiming a majority of the facility’s hourly workers are on its side. Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee spent the first part of this week pleading with plant staff not to unionize.
Lee’s not the first Tennessee governor to stand in opposition to the UAW. His predecessor, former Gov. Bill Haslam, also opposed unionizing and threatened to nix millions in state and local incentives if the facility hopped into bed with organized labor. However, while Lee’s aims are the same, his strategy is not. Rather than threaten employees, he’s asking them to see things his way.
With the factory briefly idled on Monday to allow the governor to receive its staff’s undivided attention, Lee chose his wording carefully. The governor devoted the majority of his chat (shared in its entirety by Labor Notes) to asking staff to consider the state’s future and ensure more manufacturing jobs and skilled-labor positions are available for their neighbors and children.
“There are new companies that all of us would benefit from if they came here, because they would bring more high-paying jobs that would elevate the economic activity of our state for everyone. There are a few things that are really important for those companies that are thinking about coming here,” he said. “What are you doing for workforce development in your state that makes it an attractive place for us to bring our company? I will tell you, we are going to do something in this state to make sure that we have skilled tradespeople … to fill the next 3,800 jobs that Volkswagen may ultimately bring to this place if we continue to create the environment in Tennessee that is helpful to them or to any number of other companies that we’re already talking to.”
Volkswagen has already informed Chattanooga that it believes the facility can achieve more through an open dialog than unionization, but would respect the outcome of the vote. Lee’s speech said much the same.
“I know you all have an important vote that is coming up; that there is differences of opinion about that,” he said, noting that he didn’t run any attack ads during his campaign for governor and also refused to be divisive or confrontational about the union issue.
“I do believe, based on my personal experience of working with hundreds of skilled trades people over 35 years of working, that every workplace has challenges,” Lee continued. “There are things in your workplace that you wish were different. I also believe … that when I have a direct relationship with you, the worker, and you’re working for me, that is when the environment works the best.”
Lee’s address received quite a bit of applause in certain moments, but booing can be heard in parts of the recording. Hearing evidence of a split crowd, the governor said he respected their position and was compelled to share his in order to promote an “open dialog.”
“We had open dialogue back by letting the governor know that we think he is full of it,” Billy Quigg, a seven-year veteran at the plant, told Labor Notes. “Don’t preach open dialogue and then get upset when we make it clear that we disagree with what the governor is saying.”
The UAW originally hoped to see a vote take place at the end of April, but there’s no official date set. Automotive News reports no change in the vote’s status, but shared a written statement from Brian Rothenberg, spokesman for the UAW in Detroit, about the speech.
“Governor Lee has embraced UAW GM workers in Spring Hill Tennessee. All Chattanooga workers want is the same rights as Spring Hill workers and every other VW worker in the world. Why should Chattanooga workers be treated differently and why wouldn’t the Governor or anyone else want Chattanooga workers to have the same rights as GM Spring Hill workers?” Rothenberg postulated.
A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.
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