The powerful German metalworkers’ union IG Metall has opened a joint office with the United Autoworkers in Tennessee to promote organising in the American South.
The partnership between IG Metall and the United Autoworkers (UAW) came about out of attempts to organise the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In February 2014, the UAW lost an election to represent 1,500 blue-collar assembly line workers by a margin of 712 to 626.
The union had campaigned for a “works council” labour-management partnership model, like the one IG Metall enjoys with the company in Germany. IG Metall pressured the company to express their own support for the partnership and union vote, and the company declared itself open to recognition.
However, a well-funded anti-union campaign by Republican politicians helped ensure the union vote was lost.
The union strategy was to win voluntary recognition from Volkswagen, using the works council as leverage. But the defeat last year has lead to a hardening of the company’s stance, and a change of tactics from the union.
The UAW won a legal battle this week to organise a small group of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, potentially giving the union its best chance ever to represent workers at a car manufacturer in the South.
The new union office will be located near the General Motors plant in Nashville, Tennessee. According to IG Metall, the US is both an important market and production base for German car manufacturers. 750,000 Americans work for German companies, many of them at factories like Volkswagen in Tennessee, Mercedes in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.
Wages in the US South are far lower than in the North, and unions face more legal restrictions. The South has become a new centre for German car manufacturers. German investment has created tens of thousands of jobs, but from a trade union perspective, there are a number of serious problems.
Many workplaces have no worker representation at all, and as a consequence wages, benefits and working conditions are significantly worse than in the traditional industrial regions of the Northeast, with its relatively strong trade unions.
By German standards, the US is a low-wage country, with wage levels at just 53% of German levels.
US car makers like Ford, Chrysler and GM were traditionally centres around the Detroit area, where the UAW was very powerful.
The joint efforts by IG Metall and the UAW are an attempt to stop right wing US politicians turning the US South into a union-free low wage area, and to stop companies taking advantages of poor conditions there.
The small victory won by the UAW at Volkswagen comes at a time when the company is facing a global crisis in the wake of the emissions scandal. The UAW hopes a chastened VW will come back to the negotiating table and seek to deal more ethically with both workers and wider society.
Commenting on VW’s attempts to stop union organising, Gary Casteel UAW secretary-treasurer said:
“It’s unfortunate that, in the middle of Volkswagen’s widening emissions scandal, we had to spend weeks debating workers’ rights that clearly are protected under federal law. Volkswagen’s attempt to sidestep U.S. law was a waste of employees’ time and energy, and a waste of government resources.
“Looking ahead, our hope is that the company now will recommit to the values that made Volkswagen a great brand — environmental sustainability and true co-determination between management and employees. We have no doubt that Volkswagen can make a comeback in the U.S. and around the world, but the company needs to refocus on its core principles.”
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