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February 17, 2014 3:37 PM Public Officials Stepping On Labor Rights: A Clarification

By Ed Kilgore

Having read more about the UAW/Volkswagen saga in Tennessee, I’d like to make it clear that what bugs me about it isn’t the vote not against unionizing as a thing in itself, but the aggressive intervention by public officials (with financial and rhetorical assistance from national union-haters like Grover Norquist) to issues threats against labor and management alike to stop the exercise of labor rights.

Would the UAW have won without this intimidation? Probably, though as my friend the long-time labor activist Rich Yeselson observes at the Jacobin today, the effort lacked one ingredient that often proves essential: a terrible employer:

There’s an old saying in labor: “The boss makes the best organizer.” In this campaign, the UAW — for entirely understandable reasons — sidelined its best organizer. The union didn’t give the workers enough reason to upset the massive status quo bias in an overwhelmingly white evangelical region of an anti-union Southern state against unionization.

At the Prospect, Harold Meyerson leans even more heavily in the direction of thinking the UAW was simply taking on an impossible task given the powerfully conservative culture of the area in question, which trumped economic interests.

These are all interesting currents of debate, but to be clear, my beef would exist if unionization didn’t make sense at the VW plant, or if a majority of workers legitimately opposed it on economic or cultural grounds. Public officials have no business interfering in labor-management relations in order to deny the legitimacy of federally recognized rights, particularly in order to project some vision of a union-free state or region where The Boss Walks Tall and workers are happy with whatever they’re given.

If Bob Corker wants to argue for the repeal of the nation’s labor laws in order to denude workers of any protection, let him have at it. But there should be no place in America where labor rights simply aren’t recognized.

UPDATE: I am curious about one data point Meyerson offers for the idea that VW workers in Chattanooga rejected the UAW on “cultural” grounds: that anti-union forces were able to compare the union to the northern Army that “occupied” East Tennessee during the Civil War. The trouble with that idea is that the “occupation” was largely invited by the indigenous white mountain population, which supplied the GAR with many thousands of recruits (and the United States with its ill-fated but at the time ferocious 1864 Vice President). Yes, Hamilton County (Chattanooga) was on the edge of this region, and was more divided, but you’d still think these powerful memories might militate against a neo-Confederate argument for rejecting the UAW. It’s East Tennessee’s Union sympathies, after all, that made the area heavily Republican from 1864 on.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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