Usually right-wing free market conservatives are more than happy to pander to the wishes of their corporate sponsors when they desire low taxes, less regulation, and cheap unorganized labor. But what happens, for instance, when a corporation decides that having a cooperative and constructive relationship with organized labor might be mutually beneficial for workers and management, and improve the efficiency and productivity of the firm. Then, suddenly, the mantra of “business knows best” is abandoned in favor of a very non-libertarian paternalism opposing the private sector corporation’s intentions.
This remarkable drama is playing out in Tennessee where Volkswagen has proposed a cooperative management-labor arrangement for their Chattanooga plant modeled after the German work councils that gives workers more democratic decision-making power to shape and improve the production process and conditions of work. This is a model that has proven highly effective, efficient, and profitable at most VW plants around the world. In order to establish the work councils the workers must be represented by a union – in this case the United Auto Workers -- so the employees in this facility will be voting on UAW representation.
What is unique about this development is that VW is not trying to prevent or break a union, but instead is giving the workers the freedom to decide for themselves without the typical heavy-handed interference or intimidation.
But the right-wing ideologues and the political officials in Tennessee – largely Republicans – are opposed to this process and arrangement, and are threatening to withdraw the state incentives and subsidies provided to VW.
Why would they be taking such a position? The most obvious reason is that they are worried the idea of cooperative labor-management relations might catch on at other auto plants in Tennessee and beyond. While this would be good for workers and might finally bring some balance to the labor-capital struggle that has found workers consistently on the losing end for the past thirty years, it does not conform to the neo-liberal model on which their state economic development policies have been based.
The presence of labor unions also extends beyond simply raising compensation and providing workers with greater democratic rights in a particular workplace. As the research by sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld suggest:
Union effects on nonunion workers can work in several ways. Nonunion employers may raise wages to avert the threat of union organization…We argue that unions also contribute to a moral economy that institutionalizes norms for fair pay, even for nonunion workers. In the early 1970s, when 1 in 3 male workers were organized, unions were often prominent voices for equity, not just for their members, but for all workers…
Politically, U.S. unions have been frequent advocates for redistributive public policy. Highly unionized states have higher minimum wages, and their congressional repre- sentatives are more likely to support minimum wage increases.
So the opposition to this unionization and labor-management arrangement is about much more than a VW plant. It is about ensuring that there are no spillover effects for other workers in Tennessee and beyond, and no political mobilization of workers for more progressive and equitable political economic policies.
The class war continues.