The Labor Prospect: Southern Struggles

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

Union supporters hold up signs near the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Friday, December 4, 2015. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

The United Auto Workers has finally gotten itself a win in the South. Skilled-trades workers at Volkswagen’s sole U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to unionize late last week—forming a micro-unit that the UAW hopes to use as a foothold to create a factory-wide bargaining unit. The election comes more than a year and a half after the union failed to win a highly contentious plant-wide vote that drew the ire of many a conservative Tennessee Republican. Though the unit is just a fraction—roughly 150 workers—of the plant’s workforce, no win is a small one for unions in the South.

The UAW’s ultimate goal is to represent the full factory and implement a German-style works council, a vehicle for bringing workers voices to the management level that Volkswagen has long used in its German factories. However, as Reuters reports, in the wake of the automaker’s disastrous emissions scandal, Qatar, the third-largest shareholder, wants Volkswagen to roll back the influence of works councils and the representation of workers on the company’s board. That representation, however, is required by German law. That said, it’s a mark of VW’s corporate woes that it is being lectured in governance by the representatives of a hereditary monarchy.  

As more and more foreign automakers—and other manufacturers—have set up shop in the South because of huge tax incentives and promises of bargain-bin labor costs, unions like the UAW have pivoted focus to building power in the South. One plant that has proven most difficult to organize is Nissan’s factory in Canton, Mississippi. The UAW has alleged that the company engages in rampant and illegal stifling of union activity. And now the NLRB is taking notice. The labor board formally charged Nissan and a staffing agency it uses with violating workers’ rights by requiring employee-issued uniforms to be worn after many workers began wearing pro-union garb on the assembly line. The charges are significant—as the Associated Press reports, only 6 percent of complaints filed in 2014 actually led to formal charges.

Labor and Industry Go Old-School

Elsewhere, unions are also struggling to succeed using labor’s old-school tactics. In northern Wisconsin, 2,000 workers at Kohler’s faucet factory have been picketing since mid-November. It’s a traditional strike with size and significance that are no longer common in today’s labor movement that has largely abandoned the traditional strike. But, as Joe Burns argues for In These Times, this strike is precisely the type of win that labor needs to be able to get. “Labor has become adept at hit-and-run publicity strikes such as the Walmart, retail, and fast food strikes of recent years. Although important, these are not the fight-to-the-finish type battles, nor do they involve anywhere near the number of workers or level of participation, that this strike does.”

In a similar situation, 2,200 workers for Allegheny Technologies have been locked out by their employers since August 15 after their union, United Steelworkers, refused to give into broad concessions. For The New York Times, Steven Greenhouse profiles some of the workers—many of whom have worked for the company for over a decade. As Greenhouse writes, “[workers] contend the company is undermining the middle class in the nation’s industrial heartland by demanding a two-tier contract with lesser benefits for future hires, insisting upon a four-year wage freeze and requiring many employees to pay at least $2,000 more a year for health coverage.”

Meanwhile, in an incredibly rare instance of justice for workers (however small), a jury convicted Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship of conspiring to skirt mine-safety standards in the lead up to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 workers in West Virginia. However, he was cleared of all responsibility in direct relation to the workers’ deaths.

Ohio Republicans were testing the right-to-work waters over the past couple of weeks. Such whispers quickly drew resistance from workers and labor leaders in the state, as well as Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Soon after Republicans introduced right-to-work legislation in the House and a hearing was held on the matter, however, the bill appeared to lose all political steam. As Thomas Suddes opines, this could be due to the huge backlash Republicans faced after the Senate passed a public-sector collective bargaining ban in 2011, which led opponents to put the issue up for referendum on the 2012 ballot. It failed by a long shot. Now, Republicans seem wary of such a repeat playing out during a contentious 2016 election in which Democrats are likely to be highly motivated and mobilized in the state.


Huffington Post staffers are asking management to voluntarily recognize its union after demonstrating “overwhelming support” within its editorial ranks.

Of the 14 victims in the San Bernardino shootings, 10 were members of the SEIU Local 721, which represents public-sector employees in Southern California.

Worker advocates continue to pressure the Dallas City Council to pass mandatory rest breaks for outdoor laborers.

While Hillary Clinton has gained the majority of support from the traditional labor movement, alt-labor seems to be forging its own path.

At The Prospect…

From our fall issue, labor expert David Bensman takes a close look at the increasingly precarious nature of employment in our economy, and what it will take to “regularize” jobs. Read more…

And in a sneak-peek of our upcoming winter issue, esteemed labor reporter Steven Greenhouse dives deep into one of the most publicized instances of precarious employment: Uber, and other on-demand apps. Greenhouse reports on the innovative new ways that drivers and labor leaders are trying to gain workplace rights in the burgeoning industry. Read more…

In light of Robert Pollin’s new book, Greening the Global Economy, Amanda Teuscher talks with him about how a clean energy transition can, in tandem, lead to an empowered labor movement. Read more…

Teachers for an online charter school network in California have finally won the right to unionize. Can teachers unions help improve this controversial education system? Rachel Cohen considers the question. Read more…

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