Originally published in the Times Free Press.
Friday night, the United Auto Workers lost the union election at Volkswagen.
There should never have been an election in the first place.
There shouldn’t have to be.
Want to start a business? You aren’t forced to hold an election. You’re free. Go start a business.
Want to go to college? Get married? Cross borders? Assemble or go to church?
You don’t need an election. You’re free.
Religion, commerce, travel, education — these are basic human rights.
So, too, is unionizing.
VW workers ought to be free to join a union without hassle, interference, coercion or outside pressure. Sign a card. Say yes. Attend meetings. Join a union.
“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment,” proclaims the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Workers at VW shouldn’t have to go through hell and back to unionize. Ad campaigns, threats, videos, insinuations — the enormity of attention — all stymies and misrepresents the very reason for unions.
So that work is dignified, ennobled and protected.
So that labor is life-giving, not a means of extortion.
So that collective power provides a check-and-balance against corporate greed.
Unions are standard democracy across the world, yet here in Tennessee?
Gov. Bill Lee traveled to VW to hold a closed-door meeting with workers, sending the message: don’t unionize.
VW’s new CEO, Frank Fischer, held meetings with workers, sending the message: don’t unionize.
State legislators threatened an end to incentive packages, sending the message: don’t unionize.
How dare multimillionaires look $15.50-an-hour workers in the eye and declare what is and isn’t good for them?
All this creates a narrative that focuses on the speck in Tennessee’s eye while ignoring the log.
We focus on unions.
Not worker safety.
Not worker dignity.
Not corporate greed and malfeasance.
In 2008, without any public referendum or vote, our state legislators awarded VW with a $554 million tax incentive package, the largest in state history.
Seven years later, Tennessee offered another $260 million.
Yet VW was found guilty of international “Dieselgate” deception, fraudulently masking emissions output.
And VW also pays some of the lowest wages in the auto industry, according to a 2015 Center for Automotive Research report.
Both issues — low wages and Dieselgate — seem forgivable by Tennessee leaders, who are then outraged at the idea of workers organizing for collective power, safety and voice.
It is a monstrously lopsided view that seems to suffocate the interests, desires and dignity of the very people — workers — on whom VW depends.
Democracy and human rights should always come before business.
“My coworkers are getting hurt, I’ve been hurt, there is constant threat of injury, and if it doesn’t change, none of us will survive,” one VW worker told Labor Notes.
The NYC-based Labor Notes — specifically its dogged reporter Chris Brooks, a Chattanooga native and my friend — has reported on both Lee and Fischer’s meetings while also receiving multiple worker testimonies.
Like this: “I shouldn’t have to give Volkswagen my body in exchange for the house that I live in and the lifestyle I try to provide for my family.”
And this: “When I went and told my supervisor I had a problem with a hand, I was called a liar. I was told I was faking.”
And this: “They push, push, push. They overload the pitches [section on assembly line] to make the job impossible, and when you are rushing to catch up, that is when you get injured.”
Of course, not all workers agree.
One VW worker told the anti-union Southern Momentum that unionization was a threat.
“I can’t risk losing all of that. My kids can’t risk losing all of that. I’ve got three fixin’ to go to college. Am I going to go flip burgers for $24 an hour? After eight years? No, no I’m not. It’s time for the attacks to stop,” she said.
Both types of stories — can’t flip burgers for $24 an hour and I shouldn’t give my body to VW — share a commonality.
The real issue here is not unionization.
It is the ability for each Tennessean to earn bread for his or her table.
It is the ability for each Tennessean to find safe, dignified work while remaining free to exercise autonomy, voice and power.
I write this not in specific support of UAW, but as a Christian who believes that work should be dignified, life-giving and noble.
If that is bad for business, then we must rethink the very nature of what we call business.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com