Over 5,000 union members live in the Chattanooga area, but to many residents, organized labor’s presence can seem invisible. On Monday, representatives from 17 area locals packed downtown Chattanooga to show their support for 1,700 Volkswagen worker in Chattanooga who are fighting the National Labor Relations Board to get the right a union vote at the plant.
“No hypocrisy, let them vote. It’s about democracy, let them vote,” shouted the crowd in Chattanooga’s downtown Miller Park.
In a move seen as attempting to bust the union, Volkswagen has used their influence over the National Labor Relations Board to get the NLRB to put an indefinite delay on the union vote at Volkswagen until it can be adjudicated; a process that can sometimes take years.
Volkswagen has argued that since 160 maintenance workers at the plant voted to unionize in 2015, a new union election can’t be held for that group of workers as well as production workers until a decertification vote is conducted first to decertify that union; a process that could take more than a year.
The move strikes many as hypocritical since Volkswagen refused to recognize the union and bargain with that smaller union; insisting that they would only bargain with a union that represented all 2,000 maintenance and production workers at the plant. For nearly three years, Volkswagen has argued that the Obama era rules that allowed only maintenance workers to vote were a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
Volkswagen workers say the legal delays are just an attempt to delay the vote so that the company can run an anti-union intimidation campaign to scare workers away from the union.
“This is about Chattanooga workers at Volkswagen Chattanooga taking care of our issues that’s all it’s about. Let us vote. Let us handle our issues” 7-year Volkswagen employee Billy Quig told the assembled crowd.
For many veterans of the Civil Rights movement, the struggle to get a union vote at the plant outrages them.
“Let the workers vote; it’s just that simple. Just let the workers vote,” says Eric Atkins, a member of the mail handlers union and secretary of the UNITY GROUP, an umbrella of civil rights organization in Chattanooga
A downtown worker’s rally at rush hour helped draw attention to the struggle of workers in Chattanooga to schedule a vote.
“People were stopping their cars to talk to us, and I think we really got the message across,” says ATU Local 1212 member LaKecha Strickland. “It’s been a number of years since there has been a rally like this–I wanna say since the late 70s.”
During the failed union election at Volkswagen, the UAW faced criticism that they didn’t have enough community support. However, five years later, the UAW and its allies in organized labor are launching a full-scale community campaign to buoy support.
Recently, the Chattanooga area labor council hired on a full-time organizer to help unions in their area build support for the labor movement as a whole in the region. Already, local labor observers say that the results are paying off as more locals unions are engaging their membership.
“It takes investment at the local level to shift things in a positive way, and I think the amount that you can get do with just a little staff power is needed,” says Chattanooga Labor Council organizer Austin Sauerbrei-Brown.
Among Chattanooga area labor activists that have been involved in the local labor movement for decades, there is a strong feeling that the sense of community has deepened since the failed first union vote at Volkswagen in 2014.
“Support here for labor is growing more so now than at any time since I joined the Chattanooga Area Labor Council. I didn’t know we had so many locals in the Chattanooga-area beyond the ones we typically associate with and I have met so many brothers and sisters that are member of so many locals, and it’s been amazing,” says Carla Leslie who has been a member of United Steelworkers Local 15120 at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Chattanooga for 29 years.
“Momentum is on the ground, you can feel it,” says Eric Atkins. “It’s a microcosm of what’s happening across the country–support for unions is growing everywhere.”
Not only is the local labor community mobilizing in a way unseen before, but a new group, the “Center for VW Facts” (a play on the anti-union “Center for Union Facts”), has launched a series of TV and radio ads heavily criticizing the company; creating doubt about the honesty of Volkswagen as they attack the UAW in the run-up to the union election.
With outside anti-union groups pouring in millions of dollars, local Chattanooga activists say the money could lead to another high-profile loss at the plant if community members don’t get their back. (See Payday’s exclusive interview with union-buster Rick Berman on how he plans to defeat the UAW in Chattanooga).
“[The outside money] is having an undue negative influence and it’s suffocating the efforts of the message of the workers themselves,” says Eric Atkins. “These folks deserve the right to vote – it’s the American way.”
The community rally, which was widely covered in the press, helped push back against the narrative that the community wasn’t behind the vote.
“These sorts of actions that are focused on solidarity support between community and other labor unions supporting a particular union going through significant struggle around a very specific issue, I think these sort of rallying cries and rally points are huge for building that lasting movement that goes beyond just a specific fight,” says Chattanooga Labor Council’s Austin Sauerbrei-Brown.
In Chattanooga, there is a sense that something is changing as workers fight the National Labor Relations Board for the right to vote.
“We’re getting together again like it was back in the day and we are standing in solidarity with one another to get things done and make a significant change for labor workers in our community,” says LaKecha Strickland.
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