Despite Millions Spent in Opposition, Date Set for High Profile Union Election in Chattanooga

After months of organizing, fighting, advocating, and waiting, the NLRB has set a date for a secret-ballot union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee for February 12, to 14.

Chattanooga has the only major Volkswagen plant in the United States, employing 1,600 workers. And it’s unique: At all other VW plants worldwide, workers have the opportunity to join German-style “works councils”–committees of blue collar workers, white collar employees, and representatives from management who discuss plant conditions.

The Chattanooga plant has been the site of a high-dollar proxy battle, drawing the United Auto Workers and national anti-union giants like Grover Norquist, who set up an organization called the Center for Worker Freedom to oppose the organizing effort.

But unlike most other union fights, Volkswagen management does not oppose the UAW’s organizing:

Scott Wilson, a VW spokesman, said: “Volkswagen values the rights of its employees in all locations to representation of their interests.  In the United States, it is only possible to realize this in conjunction with a union.  This is a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of the employees. For this reason, we have begun a dialogue with the U.A.W.”

That puts the outside forces in the odd position of criticizing both the union organizers and the Volkswagen management. Don Jackson, who until 2012 headed up American manufacturing for Volkswagen, has become an outspoken opponent of what his former employer is doing in Chattanooga. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said it was “beyond belief,” VW would allow a union election, saying they would become a “laughingstock” if the UAW succeeded.

AFL-CIO President Trumka dismissed the rantings from Corker and others. “Claims that union representation would make Tennessee a ‘laughingstock in the business world,’ or deter other companies from moving South are nothing more than attempts to hold on to a polarizing, unproductive ‘us vs. them’ status quo,” Trumka wrote in the Detoit News, “Volkswagen’s willingness to work collaboratively is a strong part of its success.”

It’s clear that this fight isn’t just about one plant. “It seems that both the business community and labor are seeing what’s happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the Southern automotive business and labor history,” says Vanderbilt University labor expert Daniel B. Cornfield.

Luckily, the decision will ultimately be in the hands of the 1,600 workers who punch in every day at the Chattanooga plans. “For me to have a voice at the workplace would tremendously increase my chances of staying here,” said Seth Landis, an Electrical Rework Line Team Member at Chattanooga.

“I’m excited. I can’t wait,” said Paint Finish Team Member Tammy Flint. “I just can’t wait for this to get started, I’m ready for it.”

Voting begins February 12.

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Could Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Survive One of His Company’s Own Warehouses for a Week?

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That’s the question Nancy Becker, an American employed by Amazon in Germany since 2001, asked as she trekked to Seattle this week to stand up for the rights of workers in the online retailer’s “fulfillment centers.” The centers—little more than warehouses where workers are faced with near-impossible workloads for minimal pay—are the subject of rallies in Seattle and Germany on Monday. Becker traveled from her workplace in Germany, “I’m coming to Seattle to dare Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week. I’m sure he would not survive.”

In recent months, workers at Amazon’s warehouses in Bad Hersfeld, Leipzig and Graben in Germany have engaged in a series of rolling strikes. They are hoping to increase pressure on Amazon by sending protesters to the company’s Seattle headquarters, where they were joined by American workers also opposed to the low wages and harsh work conditions that the company’s American warehouses share.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

We welcome the German Amazon workers and their union, ver.di, to the United States. Just as German workers have stood in support of U.S. workers employed by global corporations, we join your fight for fairness at one of the largest corporate retailers in the world. It’s time that Amazon make good on its obligations to its workers, not just its shareholders and executives, and we will be there in Seattle to make our voices heard.

The complaints about Amazon are pretty similar in both countries: “The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts,” said Stefanie Nutzenberger, a board member of ver.di, the union representing the German Amazon workers. Instead of classifying fulfillment center workers as retail employees, the company calls them “logistics” workers and then pays them lower rates than they would have to pay retail workers. This misclassification allows the company to claim that it’s paying workers a higher wage for their field than other companies, when the reality is they would have significantly higher wages if correctly classified as retail workers. And despite claims that Amazon has made about safety being a top priority, “Last month, an investigation by the BBC’s “Panorama” program into a U.K.-based Amazon warehouse found conditions a stress expert said could cause ‘mental and physical illness.’”

Workers categorized the conditions similarly:

“The workers are treated more as robots than human,” Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, an organizer for Ver.di at the Amazon warehouse in the city of Werne, said by email. He was on his way to Seattle to participate in the demonstration.

“As a worldwide company,” Mr. Hoffmann-Achenbach added, “Amazon should treat their workers fairly and with respect in every country. The solidarity of American unions and ver.di, the united services union of Germany, is a sign that social movements are not bounded by national borders and that in times of globalization, the workers worldwide stand together as one.”

Amazon officials seemed to have little sympathy for their own workers:

But Amazon’s German country head Ralf Kleber said the company had no intention of bowing to pressure from striking workers and was more worried about bad weather hurting Christmas deliveries, he told Reuters in an interview last month.

You can almost hear Kleber ending the sentence with a “bah” or a “humbug.”

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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