Unions could claim their most significant victory in years at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., an organizing coup that, if successful, would give dwindling unions a critical foothold in the burgeoning Southern auto industry.
Labor groups representing autoworkers, government employees, bus drivers and fast-food workers see the current economic climate as ripe for organizing. Georgia, Atlanta in particular, sits squarely in their sights.
Unite Here, for example, has signed up more than 550 retail and food-service workers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport within the past year and a half. The Teamsters got DeKalb County’s permission last month to organize 450 sanitation workers. School bus drivers in Fulton and DeKalb counties are targeted by a government employees union.
“The South is hugely, hugely critical for us,” said Tefere Gebre, the executive vice president for the AFL-CIO. “If we work smartly, and patiently, I believe the South would rise again for workers.”
Yet only 11.3 percent of American workers are union members — an all-time low. Less than 5 percent of Georgians belong to a union. And only four other states — all in the South — are less-unionized.
Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, isn’t unduly worried about organized labor’s latest Southern push.
“Unionization efforts, long-term, in the South are going to fail,” he said. “Employees know and treat their workers well, so there’s no need to unionize.”
Fear and fertile ground
This time, labor experts say, could be different. The recession, which began six years ago, hit workers hard. The nation’s 7.3 percent unemployment rate is two points higher than before the recession. In Georgia, it’s 8.7 percent.
Employers cut hours and hired part-timers or contract workers. Salaries stagnated. Health benefits dwindled. CEOs at large Georgia companies earned on average 120 times more than the average worker in their industries last year, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
Meanwhile, Southern unions struggle for traction. The United Auto Workers has tried for two decades, ever since BMW settled in Greer, S.C., to get inside a foreign auto plant. Delta Air Lines flight attendants and ramp workers have rebuffed union attempts in recent years. An Alabama auto parts company rejected a UAW bid in August.
But a Southern manufacturing renaissance, of sorts, offers unions hope. Relatively cheap labor and so-called right-to-work laws that don’t require employees to join a union to get a job attract companies. Production that went overseas a generation ago is returning to Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas and Tennessee.
“The ground is fertile, but there’s still a lot of fear,” said Dorothy Townsend, the Southern regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “There are not that many good jobs with benefits anymore. It’s all about what kind of America do we want to live in.”
In September, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution stating “as one of its top priorities a Southern Strategy that will include a long-term commitment to organize the South.”
Chattanooga, and its VW plant just across the Georgia line, is ground zero. The German automaker employs 2,500 production workers who make $15 to $21 an hour with performance bonuses and benefits, a spokesman said. The UAW says employees at various Chrysler, Ford and General Motors plants earn about $28 an hour.
The union began contacting workers once the factory opened in 2011. It soon gained a key ally: the powerful IG Metall union in Germany, which represents workers at VW. Both unions are pushing for an employee “works council,” a German labor-management committee that hashes out workplace issues.
U.S. labor law prohibits a council unless a union is recognized to bargain on behalf of workers. The UAW announced in September that a majority of the Chattanooga workers had signed cards in favor of union representation.
“We already have a democratic majority of workers who want representation,” said Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director in Tennessee. “That would lead you to believe we will win an election.”
The UAW’s preference is for VW to recognize the union without an election. Anti-union groups and some VW workers prefer a “secret ballot.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said a unionized VW “would be a negative for the future economic growth of our state.” An anti-union website claims more than 600 VW workers have signed petitions opposing unionization.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit that fights unionizing tactics, has filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board’s office in Atlanta on behalf of some Volkswagen workers. The first accuses the UAW of tricking employees into signing union cards. The second contends that a German VW executive coerced employees into joining the union by threatening to withhold production of a new model at the plant in Chattanooga.
A VW spokesman said no decision has been made on a new vehicle, adding that any union decision “ultimately lies in the hands of the employees.”
A ways to go
The UAW’s push worries Southern business leaders.
“It probably emboldens union efforts in other states, not just around the automotive industry but in other efforts, too,” said Clark, the Georgia Chamber president. “We’ve got a heavy industry, manufacturing sector in North Georgia — carpet manufacturers and tons of other folks — that could be impacted over the long term.”
Corker told Automotive News that if VW turns union, “then it’s BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan.” The UAW has waged a decade-long, increasingly nasty fight to unionize a Nissan factory in Mississippi. It’s also working to sign up a majority of Mercedes’ workers in Alabama.
BMW’s car plant in upstate South Carolina is also on the UAW’s radar, Casteel said, as is the Kia plant in West Point, Ga.
“We’re actually talking to workers there,” he said about the Kia plant without elaborating.
The UAW has had better success with auto parts suppliers. A plant in Louisville, Ky., went union last month, as did two plants in Cottondale, Ala., last year. Alabama’s workforce, in fact, is 9.2 percent union.
In Georgia, it’s 4.4 percent. Only 171,000 workers are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Most every state in the South has right-to-work laws, and for too long they’ve been a stop sign for workers,” the AFL-CIO’s Gebre said. “We’ve got to find other ways of doing things. We’ve got to (attract) fast-food workers and cabdrivers and everybody else not traditionally considered the bread and butter of the movement. We need some little victories to build on.”
DeKalb commissioners voted last month to allow Teamsters Local 728 to represent trash haulers and drivers. While the union can’t bargain for pay raises or call strikes, it can represent workers on safety, discipline and other working conditions without fear of management retribution.
AFSCME, the government employees’ union, is targeting 5,000 additional water, sewer, health, tax, parks, court and health workers in DeKalb. (Police and Fire Department workers are already unionized.)
“We’re branching out to go to Macon, Augusta and Columbus,” said Greg Fann, executive director of AFSCME Local 3, the union’s third-oldest local.
The Teamsters, with 7,500 members statewide, is also eyeing Georgia State University bus drivers and Port of Savannah truck drivers, previously ignored groups with grievances.
Unite Here has pushed hard the past two years to sign up Hartsfield-Jackson’s shop and restaurant workers, a cadre of low-paid, low-profile service-industry workers that may represent unions’ greatest opportunity in the future. In all, 1,700 Atlanta workers, including about 565 at the airport, belong to Unite, said organizer Lianna Schechter, who helped the retail and food-service workers recently get raises.
“The airport is so big and important for Atlanta,” Schechter said, “that we know that if we can raise the standards in a major employer like the airport, then we can do the same for workers across the entire region.”