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April 2014

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Standing in Solidarity with the UAW

The narrow loss by the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., illuminated not only the modern Republican Party's anti-union extremism, but also its rank hypocrisy.

Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Bob Corker and State House Speaker Beth Harwell like to promote themselves as free market conservatives, saying that the role of the government is to get out of the way so companies can run their own affairs.

But that didn't stop them from overruling the decision of Volkswagen management to stay neutral in the UAW vote. The Volunteer State's GOP leadership didn't just threaten workers; they threatened the entire company, saying that a UAW victory would result in the loss of tax breaks and other state incentives.

Even more galling was the role played by right-wing ideologue and beltway lobbyist Grover Norquist. For decades, Norquist has made a lucrative career out of fighting "big government" and promoting free-market policies on Capitol Hill.

But that didn't stop him from spending millions on an anti-union public relations campaign — all against the wishes of the company the UAW was trying to organize.

The rank hypocrisy of allying with D.C.-based lobbyists while attacking the UAW as "outsiders" is too much to stomach.

The right wing is angry at Volkswagen because of the German company's unwillingness to follow the union-busting example of home-grown companies like Walmart and Comcast — and its refusal to subject employees to mandatory closed door meetings or harass pro-UAW workers.

You see in Germany, Volkswagen and many other companies have historically close relationships with unions, a partnership based on collaboration not confrontation.

Nearly every autoworker is a member of IG Metal, the German equivalent of the UAW. Every factory also has a "works council," a forum where labor and management jointly work on resolving workplace issues — from personnel problems to developing new training programs.

The result, as Forbes magazine reported in 2011, is that Germany builds twice as many autos as the U.S. does while paying their employees twice as much.

It's what we call the high-road approach to industrial relations, prioritizing good pay and a voice for workers in the boardroom in exchange for a non-adversarial relationship and commitment to on-the-job excellence. It's the same philosophy that's behind our Code of Excellence.

Works councils are so successful that Volkswagen wanted to see one at its Chattanooga plant, which is why it didn't oppose the UAW — which also backs the works council idea.

Corker and Haslam's unprecedented crusade against the UAW reveals just how shallow the claim, made by right-wing politicians throughout the right-to-work South, that unions drive away jobs.

It wasn't Volkswagen threatening to leave town if workers went union; it was politicians threatening to punish Volkswagen for its willingness to work with the UAW.

The right-wing's real fear was that Volkswagen would have set a precedent that workers throughout the South, particularly at the numerous foreign auto plants and parts manufacturers that have set up shop in the region, would follow the example of workers in Chattanooga.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley took this to extreme lengths in February by bellowing at a conference of auto executives that the Big Three wasn't welcome in her state because of its agreement with the UAW. This is a state with more than 140,000 residents still out of work.

The Tennessee GOP's crusade isn't about jobs, it's about power. It's about keeping wages as low as possible. It's about muting the voice of working families — at the workplace and in the legislative arena. It's about keeping the South a giant maquiladora for foreign corporations.

The IBEW stands with the UAW in calling for a new Volkswagen vote and condemning the gross violation of public trust by the most powerful people in the state.

Despite this short-term loss, history tells us that anti-union elites can only keep labor down for so long.

Less than two weeks after the Volkswagen loss, low-paid workers at a Pilot Flying J gas station in New Jersey — a business owned in part by the Haslam family — voted for representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

As long as low pay and disrespect at work continue, unions won't go away. And as we learned through our own experience and from those of our brothers and sisters in Europe, unions play a vital role in promoting a collaborative approach to workplace relations and shared prosperity — a model that has helped make Germany a high-wage, high-skilled manufacturing powerhouse.

The IBEW is willing and ready to partner with anyone who shares this vision.

Edwin D. Hill

Edwin D. Hill
International President

Salvatore J. Chilia

Salvatore J. Chilia
International Secretary-Treasurer